Unthinkable though it may be for the Alaska Aces to give up the fight despite the firepower arrayed against them, in the end they were forced to succumb to the heavy artillery which San Miguel Beer summoned at will whenever the battle hung in the balance.
Thrice in the PBA Governors’ Cup Finals, the campaign seemed lost for the Beermen as they stared at the end of double-digit deficits, but in all three life-and-death situations SMB dodged the bullet, reloaded and blasted its way out of the Butch-and-Sundance jam in a blaze of glory.
Game 1 of the best-of-7 championship was an anomaly, an inexplicable fluke of nature, with revved-up SMB ripping rusty Alaska, 108-78, and Beermen coach Leo Austria scratching his head in the aftermath and expressing bewilderment.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I had expected a tough game.”
The opener was essentially over after the first quarter as SMB rolled to a 35-22 lead, raining 28 three-point shots on Alaska overall, with 10 finding their mark. Snubbed for the Best Import award in favor of the Aces’ Romeo Travis, Arizona Reid went wild with 32 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists in 39:47 minutes, outdueling Travis, who limped home with 14 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists in 35:34.
Denying he was furious at getting passed over for the individual award, Reid nonetheless may have found extra motivation to prove he was more deserving of the honor, channeling his wrath at focusing on his goal to win his first PBA championship after four years.
Chris Lutz connected on 3 of 4 from 3-point range, providing a glimpse of the corner 3-point shooting which SMB will use to cut down Alaska throughout the series, while, Arwind Santos, the hero of the Beermen’s Game 7 victory over the Aces in the Philippine Cup Finals early this year, went 3 of 6. Junemar Fajardo hardly flexed a muscle in finishing with 18 points and 17 rebounds, setting the tone for his MVP season and PBA Press Corps Finals MVP moment later.
Alaska was 5 of 20 overall from beyond the arc, a 3-point dearth that will haunt it no end.
A more resolute Alaska showed up thugh for the next three games, taking a 9-point lead (85-76) with 9 minutes left in Game 2, a 5-point edge (83-78) with 8:21 to go in Game 3, and a 14-point advantage (49-35) late in the second quarter of Game 4.
In all three occasions, however, the Beermen, with Reid’s finger on the button, clicked a switch and their offense, like the Millennium Falcon, went into hyper-drive.
Reid struck for 37 points in Game 2, a runaway 103-95 victory with Marcio Lassiter draining 5 three-pointers in scoring 17 points and Fajardo adding 16 with 14 rebounds. Back-to-back triples by SMB point guard Alex Cabagnot and consecutive missiles from the same corner spot by Lassiter razed Alaska’s lead and set the Beermen to a coasting 2-0 lead in the championship.
Bracing up for a searing Alaska comeback, the Beermen found themselves trailing, 83-78, less than two minutes into the fourth quarter of Game 3. But again Reid, who unloaded 41 points with 12 rebounds, came to the rescue, sparking a 13-2 run bookended by 3-pointers coming out of nowhere off his dribble.
Fajardo added 14 points with 19 rebounds and the board-dominant Beermen, not leaving anything to chance, took Game 3 as well, 96-89, for a commanding 3-0 advantage in the finals, great odds never before conquered in the history of the PBA.
Defiant in the face of crushing adversity, Alex Compton, the Aces mentor, spoke of doing a Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and be the first team to come back from 0-3 in the championship.
“There has to be a first for everything,” he said, apparently in response to Austria’s post-game 2 remark that it would be “very hard to motivate your players if you go down zero-three.”
So the stage was set for a victory celebration or a dramatic comeback.
With the multi-colored balloons tethered on the catwalk of the Smart Araneta Coliseum, the Aces looked for a man to safely land their lunar module on the bright side of the moon; they found three – Calvin Abueva, Chris Exciminiano and the near-forgotten Romeo Travis.
It was 49-35 before the end of the second quarter for Alaska behind those three and 57-47 halfway through the third following back-to-back baskets by Abueva, who willed his heavily-taped swollen left thumb out his mind.
Then without warning SMB flew overhead and dropped an 11-0 bomb, capped by a Reid 3-pointer, and suddenly the Beermen were in front, 58-57, with the roar of majority of the 14,246 in attendance deafening in their ears.
With Reid pouring 16 of his 33-point final act in the third quarter and Fajardo, who won his second straight MVP trophy earlier, returning from a three-minute sit-down as a result of a rare flagrant one foul, scoring 10 of his 19 points in the fourth where SMB’s lead swelled to 16, the Aces completely spun out of orbit, 91-81.
It was the Beermen’s 21st championship overall and second for Austria as a coach and third as a player-coach, having won one when he was suited up for Shell 25 years ago.
Billed in the pre-finals as a battle between offense and defense, the Beermen kept their end of the bargain while taking a big bite out of the Aces’ share, purloining Alaska’s Comeback Kids reputation and revealing a defensive mentality surreptitiously hidden in the dazzling glow of their flash-and-dash offense.
All throughout the conference, Alaska has been superb,dominating the elimination and brushing off Barangay Ginebra San Miguel in the quarterfinals and defending champion Purefoods-Star in the semis. A grueling championship series and a magical Game 7 encore loomed after San Miguel labored past Meralco in the playoffs and then Rain or Shine in the Final Four.
Revenge was in the air and the time was ripe for redemption.
But the Beermen had other things in mind. And in four mind-boggling games, they masterfully completed the unthinkable with a virtuoso performance nobody saw coming.