by Tito S. Talao
Game Today (Smart Araneta)
8 p.m. – Barangay Ginebra vs San Mig Coffee (Game 7)
Manila, Philippines – So here they are – banged bodies, bruised egos and all – clashing one last time in a do-or-die Game 7 for the right to face a dangerous and well-rested opponent in the best-of-7 championship.
For Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and San Mig Super Coffee, whose journey through the first six games of the PLDT myDSL PBA Philippine Cup semifinals had taken them to varying degrees of ebbs and flows, this is what it has come down to: one final game to define their character and stake their claim as Rain or Shine’s worthy adversary in the battle royale.
With the Mixers taking Games 1, 3 and 5, and the Kings clinching Games 2, 4 and 6, the stage has been set for a sudden death at 8 tonight at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, with the winner advancing to the bruising Finals starting Friday.
The “battle of wills,” as San Mig coach Tim Cone had described the series, has now reached a point of no return where both teams will be supremely tested mentally, emotionally and physically like never before.
If San Mig’s 79-76 Game 5 victory, anchored on James Yap’s cold-blooded, closing-second 3-pointer, was like running the gauntlet, and Ginebra’s 94-91 Game 6 fightback behind Mark Caguioa, Greg Slaughter and LA Tenorio last Monday akin to going through hell, then tonight will be a war of apocalyptic proportion.
Casualty will be heavy on both sides, and the body count will be long.
Cone hasn’t forgotten two nights ago.
“No doubt Game 6 was a tough one for us to swallow,” said Cone.
“We felt we had it and then it was ripped away from us. Credit to Ginebra. But it’s been a great series, a tough series with a lot of drama and it seems only fitting that it should go this far. As my daughter always reminds me, the best two words in sports: Game Seven.”
Ato Agustin, the Ginebra coach, agrees.
“Game 7 na ‘to. Kailangang ibigay na lahat. No need to save any amount of energy,” said Agustin, who saw the pall of gloom that had earlier descended on the Kings get lifted by their overall tenacity and the return to vintage form of their embattled star playmaker.
Roundly criticized by their die-hard fans – and his fellow Ateneans – in the aftermath of the Kings’ Game 5 loss, Tenorio dramatically rose from the ruins to steer Ginebra back to life with a gut-wrenching performance, along with veteran superstar Mark Caguioa (21 points) and 6-foot-11 rookie Greg Slaughter (20, 11 rebounds).
“Di ko na inisip ang sarili ko na makabawi,” said Tenorio, who had 16 points with three 3-pointers. “Ang inisip ko lang e yung team at yung sinabi ni Sen. [Robert] Jaworski na huwag namin sayangin yung
tiwala na taongbayan.”
Jaworski, who played and coached Ginebra at the height of its phenomenal popularity in the ‘80s, attended Game 6 and stepped into the locker room at halftime, with the Kings trailing, 50-41, to offer words of encouragement.
According to those inside the dugout, the Big J had urged the Kings to stay aggressive defensively, focus on the job at hand and to never stop communicating inside.
Clearly roused by the dressing room visit of the man who stands at the center of Ginebra mania, the revved up Kings returned in the second half and engineered a roaring comeback in the third quarter, outscoring the Mixers, 32-24, and setting up the cliffhanging finish.
Yap, 1 of 6 from 3-point range, again had the fate of the Mixers placed in his hands. But the two-time MVP was short on a way-out triple at the buzzer and was silent on a crucial foul called on him with 16 seconds left that sent Caguioa to the line for two free throws that made it, 92-91, for the Kings.
A gesturing Cone was seen engaging Yap in an animated discussion on the way out of the court but the sharp-shooting star wouldn’t elaborate on the matter.
His frontline partner Marc Pingris, who had 20 points and 6 rebounds, was less reticent in his conviction however.
“Hindi nila [Kings] makukuha sa’min yan,” Pingris told Interaskyon.com. “Kinapos lang kami.”
Jayjay Helterbrand, who drilled a big 3-point shot during Ginebra’s third quarter rally, had earlier guaranteed a Kings victory in Game 6, a bold prediction 14,473 inside the Big Dome saw fulfilled before midnight Monday.
With the stakes sky-high and the odds greater than ever in Game 7, it’s now the Mixers’ turn to back up their man. And Pingris will demand nothing less.
A key factor for Ginebra will be its defense on Mark Barroca, PJ Simon and explosive rookie Justin Melton who have had their way against their Kings counterparts.
Another will be Ginebra’s ability to break up San Mig’s triangle offense and backdoor plays which time and again caught the Kings looking the other way.
Tenorio setting up play from the top and Caguioa and Slaughter posting up can also only go so far in giving the Mixers defensive problems.
For the Kings to be able to open up the middle for the high-leaping Japeth Aguilar, Slaughter and JayR Reyes, patient ball movement and weak-side picks will be of the essence in setting up their shooters, including Mac Baracael (3 of 4 triples), Helterbrand and Tenorio, for open looks and drive-and-dish penetrations.
Every stat and every figure from the series gets flush down the drain in this one knockout game where whoever wants it more and is willing to pay the price for it will emerge victorious.
Robert Jaworski said that, not just a few times, in the distant past. (with report from Waylon Galvez)