Manila, Philippines – The Alaska Aces came at San Miguel from various different directions in Game 1 of the PBA Philippine Cup Finals Wednesday that in the end Beermen coach Leo Austria admitted to being at a loss on what hit them.
“I really don’t know what happened to us,” said Austria after the Aces charged back from 22 points down early in the second quarter to edge the Beermen in overtime, 88-82, at the stunning start of their best-of-7 championship at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
San Miguel isn’t alone in search of answers. Four days after Alaska beat Rain or Shine in their semifinal showdown, the Elasto Painters are still sifting through the rubble for clues to how the Aces climbed out of deep holes in Game 1 (behind by 17) and Game 5 (down by 19) to win the series in six.
Austria referred to their 26 turnovers as a big factor in the loss. It was just the tip of the iceberg.
“How can you win a championship with that many turnovers?” said Austria, who came close to pointing a finger at some of his key players for their sub-par performances.
For the record, 2013 MVP Arwind Santos scored 12 points with 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. But he was a defensive sieve and made just 5 of 14 from the floor with no free throws and 7 turnovers.
Alex Cabagnot, brought back in a trade with Globalport for Sol Mercado specifically to help figure out Alaska’s pressure defense and thwart double-teaming defenses zeroing in on June Mar Fajardo, had 2 3-pointers and 5 assists but did little justice toward that cause.
He was 2 of 9 from the field without a foul shot and came out empty in two crucial possessions in the closing minute of regulation, turning the ball over in front of the SMB bench with the Beermen ahead, 73-72, and rushing a tight 3-pointer after two Alaska misses.
Marcio Lassiter also came up short, contributing just 3 points on 1-of-6 shooting and, likewise, failed to step into the foul line.
Alaska had 8 more free throws, an indication of its aggressiveness inside.
All the misadventures of SMB’s ace playmaker and top wingmen aside, however, what truly hurt the Beermen was their failure to make full use of the 6-foot-10 Fajardo at the post and the 47 minutes he was burdened him that left him completely exhausted by the time he went to the stripe for 2 free throws with 8.8 seconds to go and the Aces up, 74-73.
He made only one and the game went into overtime after Chris Lutz wasted a golden opportunity and Fajardo used up the last ounce of strength he had left to deny Dondon Hontiveros a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired in regulation.
San Miguel’s obsession at attacking Alaska from the post by overtly running the offense through a well-covered Fajardo was an ill-conceived decision for which the Beermen paid for dearly.
With three defenders ganging up on the big fellow and making life miserable for him every time he got the ball, SMB often had two shooters wide open on each corner, but neither got the kick-out pass.
Either Fajardo was under no instructions to make a glancing note at where the help was coming from and to locate his unguarded teammate or he believed he could physically overpower Sonny Thoss, Eric Menk and Calvin Abueva.
He could have quickly kicked the ball out, waited for the defense to recover, re-posted and got into position to again receive the quick interior pass, but none of these ever happened.
Instead, Fajardo, who managed just 14 points to go with his 17 rebounds, was reduced to a lumbering mammoth around the time Jvee Casio and Hontiveros were slicing up the Beermen in overtime with back-to-back triples.
A little rest and less over-dependence on him would have done wonders for Fajardo at crunch time. He was, however, a spent force in the extra period, going scoreless against Alaska’s swarming coverage.
As expected, Alaska’s pressure defense was as good as advertised and as showcased during the series with Rain or Shine. And with the SMB point guards unable to break through after the Aces started pressing late in the first quarter, the 22-point lead, 29-7 early in the second, was good as gone.
Finally, Alaska exposed what could be a most glaring weakness in San Miguel’s arsenal – its relatively feeble bench.
The Aces started without Abueva and Hontiveros, absorbing all the Beermen could dish off in the first few minutes without calling a timeout even when SMB came out hot. At the close of Game 1, however, Abueva had 22 points, Hontiveros 15 and rookie backup guard Chris Banchero 16 as Alaska’s second team mauled its SMB counterpart, 37-16.
SMB made 52 percent of its shots (11 of 21) in the first quarter. But its bench took a major hit in the second as the Beermen’s field goal slid to 38 percent (8 of 21) before plummeting to 19 percent (3 of 16) in the third period.
Alaska had all the answers in Game 1. San Miguel, on the other hand, is left with nothing but questions, with more on the way in Game 2.