Manila, Philippines – For the first few minutes tonight, Game 1 of the PBA Philippine Cup Finals between San Miguel Beer and Alaska could resemble a scrimmage, a basic offense vs defense walk-through as both teams circle each other, probing for attack points and testing unproven theories.
But action could heat up in the second quarter, with the title showdown between the league’s most multi-crowned ball clubs taking form and shaping up as the Clash of the Titans it is heralded to be.
That’s when the Aces could reveal if they are prepared to live and die with double-teaming June Mar Fajardo at the low post and whether the Beermen have found the answer to Alaska’s stifling pressure defense.
The opener of the best-of-7 championship series is at 7 p.m. as action returns to the Smart Araneta Coliseum after a holiday sojourn to the Mall of Asia Arena.
This marks the first time the two powerhouse franchises will meet in the finals since the 2010 Fiesta Cup where Alaska and Tim Cone beat SMB and Siot Tanquingcen in six games. Also, 17 years have passed from the time the two ballclubs faced off in a Philippine Cup Finals, with Cone and the Aces denying Ron Jacobs and the Beermen in Game 7 in 1998.
San Miguel has won a total of 19 championships, while Alaska has bagged 14, all but the last one with Cone, who moved to Purefoods in 2011.
As starkly contrasting as their playing styles are the paths threaded by the two teams to reach the championship.
San Miguel took No. 1 spot after the 11-game elimination and received an outright seeding to the semifinals where it swept Talk ‘N Text in four games. Alaska, on the other hand, went through a wringer, upending first NLEX and then Meralco in the quarterfinal playoffs before subduing Rain or Shine in a bruising, revenge-flavored semis in six games.
Rain or Shine beat Alaska in five games in last season’s Governors’ Cup semifinals, with the Aces dropping the last two matches after leading 2-1 in the best-of-5 series.
The competing coaches, as inextricably connected as they are by the past, likewise, are a study in distant character and philosophy.
San Miguel’s Leo Austria, who coached expansion team Welcoat Paints (now Rain or Shine) during the 2006 and 2007 PBA seasons, likes to run the ball through his big fellow, waiting to see how the defense will react before setting things in motion offensively. Though definitely not old school, he draws from his vast experience as a player and later as a collegiate coach to meld the art and science aspects of the game to create one seamless system.
This is his first conference as SMB head coach.
His American counterpart and former assistant coach and import at Welcoat, Alex Compton, took over after Luigi Trillo stepped down after the 2014 Commissioner’s Cup. He gradually set aside the hallmark of Alaska’s long years of success – the triangle offense – and installed an organized run-and-gun brand of play with multiple cutters and screens and endless ball movement.
Amiable and self-deprecating, Compton, who loves to flavor his English with impeccable Tagalog, also installed a fearsome pressure defense that completely choked the air out of sloppy ball-handlers.
While the mode of the championship feast will vary with each passing game, some dishes will remain constant.
San Miguel dumping the ball to the 6-foot-10 Fajardo will be the main course all series long. Alaska might attempt single coverage with Sonny Thoss, Eric Menk and Samigue Eman if only to avoid leaving an SMB shooter – point guard Alex Cabagnot or swingmen Arwind Santos and Marcio Lassiter – open once the rock rotates.
If that doesn’t work and the league MVP continues to dominate, then the double-team from various angles will be dispatched to help contain Fajardo. How the Beermen will respond from there should lead to more complex adjustments.
Alaska’s pressure defense will also be on full display, with the Aces contesting every inbound and exploiting every mistake by the SMB guards. Cabagnot gives the Beermen breathing options against the press, but expect Alaska to devise an alternate scheme to neutralize Cabagnot’s ability to read the floor well.
The Aces wore down Rain or Shine in the semis by taking away the Elasto Painters’ outside shooting and rebounding. San Miguel won’t be easy pickings with the presence of Fajardo, Santos, Cabagnot and Lassiter, but Alaska is not without weapon to challenge SMB.
Calvin Abueva, alone, is a megaton bomb waiting to explode every game with his unbridled energy and tireless work under the boards, while Dondon Hontiveros (5 of 7 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter in Game 6 against ROS) is as dangerous as ever.
Austria also singled out Aces point guard JVee Casio during the pre-Finals press conference last
Monday as the big reason why Alaska is in the fi nals, a compliment that may have contained some hidden purpose but nonetheless had the former De La Salle star blushing.
San Miguel’s defense will be also be severely tested, with Fajardo’s man, whether it be Thoss, Menk, Eman or Vic Manuel, probably instructed to shoot perimeter jumpers to draw out the SMB center and leave the middle more vulnerable for Alaska’s speedy one-on-one wingmen.
If those perimeter Js fall against a man-to-man, then SMB might go into a zone or switch Fajardo over to a lesser deadshot from 12 to 15 feet. Alaska’s next move should make for more suspenseful theater.