By TITO S. TALAO
Game Today (Mall of Asia Arena)
8 p.m. – San Mig Coffee vs Petron Blaze
Manila, Philippines – A rookie head coach pulling at the reins of the PBA’s most successful ball club and a multi-titled bench tactician looking to add another gem to his glittering crown take the floor tonight in Game One of the PBA Governors’ Cup championship series at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Petron Blaze and San Mig Coffee clash at 8 p.m. to kick off the PLDT-Telpad Best-of-7 Finals, with the Boosters holding a 1-0 head-to-head advantage over the Mixers.
Behind the 31 points of Elijah Millsap and an aggressiveness that forced defense-minded San Mig to 22 turnovers (9 more than Petron), the Boosters beat the Mixers, 89-83, last Aug. 31 before concluding the elimination round as the top two seeds in the playoffs.
No. 1 Petron eliminated No. 8 Barangay Ginebra San Miguel in the quarterfinals before dethroning defending champion Rain or Shine in four games in the semifinals. No. 2 San Mig, meanwhile, first took out the No. 7 Alaska Aces, coach Tim Cone’s former team, and then advanced to the championship by disposing of in Game 4 the Meralco Bolts, whose coach, Ryan Gregorio, used to handle the San Mig franchise (then known as Purefoods).
Between them, the two franchises have won a combined 28 championships, with Petron eyeing its 20th title in 33 final appearances and San Mig Coffee seeking its 10th.
This marks the first time, however, that they will be meeting for the championship since the 2000 Governors Cup which Petron’s predecessor (San Miguel Beer) ruled in five games over San Mig Coffee’s forerunner (Purefoods, then owned by the Ayala Group).
Seated beside coach Derrick Pumaren with Purefoods in that finals 13 years was a little known assistant named Gee Abanilla, who now sits at the other side under vastly different circumstances.
Yanked from the De La Salle Green Archers a week before the UAAP tournament to take over the Boosters following the replacement of Olsen Racela, Abanilla has been in the finals before as a second-in-command but will be calling the shots in a championship for the first time.
Should he succeed, he will become only the seventh PBA coach to win a title on his first conference.
A monument to coaching brilliance stands in the way however.
Cone, the local master of the triangle offense who has 14 titles to his name – 13 with the Aces – hopes to tie the legendary Virgilio ‘Baby’ Dalupan with 15 and isn’t expected to be derailed by a neophyte looking to gain a foothold on history.
Both teams are under the corporate umbrella of San Miguel Corporation but their personalities, styles and character are as different as oil and, if it can be said, coffee.
Petron likes open court situations, with 6-foot-10 Junmar Fajardo clearing the rebound, firing the outlet pass to Alex Cabagnot, who then has the pick from among import Elijah Millsap, Marcio Lassiter or Arwind Santos in transition.
San Mig, on the other hand, prefers to set it up with the offense preached by former NBA coach Phil Jackson, running defenders into screens and leaving shooters open or bigs rolling free to the paint.
The big question that will find an answer in Game One is how San Mig intends to cut down Fajardo’s size advantage.
Cone has spoken of his plan “to build a house inside the key and have Junmar go around it” but that would be easier said than done – even in jest since Fajardo, as of late, had shown confidence in his short perimeter game to complement his offensive rebounding.
The Boosters have the option to shut down James Yap, Joe Devance and Peter June Simon and allow Mixers import Marqus Blakely, a demon shot-blocker, to do all the hard work offensively, hoping to wear him down before the fourth quarter.
Simply said, the Mixers cannot allow this to happen and have to find ways to get their three outside shooters their fair share of open looks.
San Mig will also have to deal with the red-hot Lassiter, whose 7 three-pointers and career-high 27 points against Rain of Shine in Game 4 would open up the Mixers’ defense for Fajardo, Millsap, and Santos to exploit if an encore takes place.