By TITO S. TALAO
Manila, Philippines – Tim Cone’s genius was once again on display Thursday night in the championship game of the PLDT Home TVolution PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals although he did get some help putting it up – from the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters.
His team down by 16 in the first quarter of Game 4 and the walls slowly crumbling around them in front of thousands of screaming fans at the Philsports Arena in Pasig, the San Mig Super Coffee coach pulled out three of his starters and sent in three who otherwise would have had a difficult time cracking Talk ‘N Text’s 12-man lineup.
That he would sit down James Yap, PJ Simon and Joe Devance and bring in Justin Melton, Ian Sangalang and Mark Barroca with the Mixers reeling in from six turnovers in the first four minutes, including four in their first four possessions, seemed more an act of desperation at that moment rather than a strategic move to invite mercy from an opponent moving in for the kill.
But strategic it turned out to be.
Melton, he with the pure energy and Superman leaping ability, injected the sluggish Mixers with a shocking dose of electricity that sparked them back to life, especially import James Mays, while Sangalang, whose putback with 6:20 left was San Mig’s first field goal, did more damage than he intended by drawing Kelly Williams’ early third foul.
That TNT failed to keep the Mixers down on their knees when the score was 17-1, apparently thrilled by the sight of the lionhearted Melton zigzagging his way around the defense, may have been the Texters’ first big blunder. It wasn’t yet fatal but it allowed San Mig to get back on its feet and into the game, 25-15, at quarter’s end.
“I’m amazed. I thought they can’t do it but this team has proven me wrong over and over again,” Cone would say later. “Our guys didn’t want to quit. They just kept on battling.”
So did Cone, regardless of what he said after the Mixers won the game, 100-91, and the series, 4-1, capturing their 12th franchise title and wrapping his fingers around his 17th career championship.
Still the Texters had thrown a gauntlet.
When the Mixers caught their first break and came within six behind Mays and Melton, TNT got a huge lift from Jimmy Alapag who drained back-to-back 3-point shots to break out of a scoreless funk in Game 3. Nino Canaleta, the forgotten gunner from the previous game, then sent San Mig farther back with a buzzer-beating trey that made it 52-38 at halftime.
A lesser man would have surrendered his fate to the seemingly inevitable, but not Cone. Grim-faced, he walked quietly back to the locker room and there raised hell.
“I screamed at my players and yelled at them and asked if they wanted to rest already for Game Five,” Cone said.
The collective answer was a resounding ‘No!’
With Cone’s deafening voice still ringing in their ears, the Mixers roared back after stumbling briefly and falling behind by 17, claiming a 69-68 lead for the first time on a basket by Marc Pingris. TNT would eventually regain the advantage, 74-69, going to the fourth quarter but by then San Mig’s scent of blood could no longer be thrown off the trail.
A glaring statistical disparity that may have foretold Talk ‘N Text’s doom was San Mig’s 11 of 14 free throw shooting and the Texters’ zero attempt from the line in the third. Instead TNT launched 13 triples during the period, which suggested it was looking to bury the Mixers quickly under a hail of meteors, and apparently neglected the battle in the trenches.
TNT would miss seven of those treys in the third quarter and 22 overall, a misfiring from afar which it couldn’t negate in the absence of an inside game that drew just 12 fouls total and yielded a mere two free throws.
That’s two foul shots – one each by Alapag and Ryan Reyes (a technical) – for the entire 48-minute contest!
In contrast, the Mixers, who “battled and battled,” according to Cone, went to the line for 41 free throws, hitting 30 of them. Barroca, who had 12 of his game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter when Talk ‘N Text blew apart, went 7 of 7, Mays 8 of 15, and Melton 4 of 4.
Richard Howell, the TNT import, Ranidel de Ocampo, Best Player of the Conference Jayson Castro and Williams, whose perimeter shooting late in the first quarter kept San Mig at bay, never found their way into the free throw circle despite their reputation as slashers and post-up players.
Williams, inexplicably, played just 15 minutes, 4 in the third quarter when TNT needed him most and a mere 3 minutes in the fourth when San Mig was demolishing the Texters’ defense and nobody save for De Ocampo was returning fire.
As in Game 3, TNT cast its lot on Larry Fonacier, a lights-out shooter when he gets in the groove. But San Mig’s defense had him in the crosshairs last Tuesday, shutting him down, and the Mixers had him again Thursday (0 for 5 in 27 minutes).
While the Mixers battled with whoever was on their bench, the Texters, it seemed, waited for their key players to win the war.
Alapag tried, draining four 3-pointers and leading TNT with 27 points in 33 minutes – third only to Howell (40) and De Ocampo (35). But he was left to fend for himself in the decisive fourth against the bigger and more agile Barroca, who tormented him at least four straight times with post-up plays capped by the former FEU star’s bread-and-butter shot: one-handed turnaround jumpers.
Why somebody else wasn’t sent to guard Barroca at the first sign of the defensive mismatch, or why no help came along to force the San Mig playmaker to give up the ball, remains a mystery.
Finally, there was the curious `case of Jayson Castro. Was he ailing or playing hurt? Or have the Mixers just succeeded in taking the Blur out of the equation?
Whichever, Melton appeared to have his number in the times their matchup materialized, with Castro turning the ball over in one play. Inside for 23 minutes, Castro had 5 points on 2 of 5 from the floor with one rebound, 3 steals and 4 turnovers – out of sight and out of mind.
And so the multi-colored balloons fell that evening just when plans were being made to haul them over to the Smart Araneta Coliseum for the winner-take-all Game 5.
Cone was inside the press room doing interviews when the celebration was exploding at the Philsports Arena. He was politely excused to join his players for the presentation of the championship trophy and to address the fans but was back quickly to speak with sportswriters, both from print and the social media.
“Honestly, guys, I’d rather be here with you than out there,” he said, smiling.
It was understandable. He had breathtakingly weaved his magic out on the playing court just minutes ago. It was time to talk about it now – and Tim Cone did so extensively as only someone of his genius can.