By failing to put away San Miguel Beer in Game 4 last Sunday, the Alaska Aces had left open a small window of opportunity. Question is, will the gap be wide enough for a 6-foot-10 figure, slightly hobbled two days ago but who might actually be fine by tomorrow, to sneak in?
Game 5 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum holds the answer.
Though San Miguel’s nerve-fraying 110-104 overtime win can hardly classify as divine intervention, it could be difficult to dissuade SMB coach Leo Austria, who had consistently mentioned the word miracle in three post-game interviews – all coming off tough losses to Alaska in the Smart Bro-PBA Philippine Cup Finals – from thinking of it any other way.
At the cramped and frigid Philsports Arena press room after denying the Aces a coveted 4-0 sweep, Austria was at it again although this time he added something else – a vow, or what amounts to as a challenge.
“It’ll take a miracle, but who knows?” said Austria of the never-been-done before feat of winning four in-a-row after falling behind 0-3 in a best-of-7 series.
Asked if the victory puts added pressure on him to give the green light for the recuperating June Mar Fajardo to suit up and play in Game 5, Austria shook his head. “As I’ve told my players,” he said, “give us a Game 7 and June Mar will play.”
Herculean at the least, that would entail carving out two more wins over the league’s most stringent pressure defense and against some of the PBA’s deadliest offensive weapons. Isn’t he asking too much from the team?
“Well, that’s the only way I will allow June Mar to play because I don’t want to disrupt the healing process,” Austria said. “Maganda ‘yung progress sa kanyang knee.” He then added with a smile: “Nakakalakad na nga siya – kasi tatanggap siya ng BPC (Best Player of the Conference) award e.”
Doing a quick math, Austria approximated that the 10 days or so between Games 4 and 7 should give Fajardo extra hours in the gym to get his knee in game shape.
“Baka enough time na yon,” he said.
Fajardo, who has sat out the first four games of the finals after twisting his left knee in the semifinal series with Rain or Shine, made his first appearance for the Beermen Sunday since getting rolled out in a gurney weeks ago, an excruciating look on his face back then.
A bright smile had since replaced the grimace as he accepted his third straight Philippine Cup BPC plaque before the game, putting a little more weight on his right leg as he walked with measured steps to centercourt to accept the recognition from PBA commissioner Chito Narvasa.
He was mobbed by teammates when he returned to the bench, none more warmly than former MVP winner Arwind Santos who appeared to have suffered most in Fajardo’s absence. Relegated to an afterthought on account of his poor shooting, Santos emerged from the dark by using his long arms to tip in his own miss late in regulation and cap an 11-0 run that wiped out a 93-82 Aces lead in the final 3:30, giving the Beermen a 94-93 edge with 28 seconds to go.
It signalled that the former Far Eastern University King Tamaraw was back, and his go-ahead basket would have been another dagger buried at the hearts of the Aces from last season’s Game 7 championship had it not been for Cyrus Baguio, who beat the final buzzer with a three-pointer that tied the game, 98-all, and sent it into overtime where Chris Ross and Alex Cabagnot eventually took over for SMB.
Alex Compton, the Alaska coach who was less than four minutes from wrapping his hands around his first PBA title, was gracious in defeat, paying tribute to the Beemen’s unyielding spirit.
“They fought hard; it was a testament to their character,” said Compton, who also directed attention to 43 fouls called against the Aces and 32 on the Beermen which he added resulted in a 46-30 disparity in free throws awarded.
Three Alaska players fouled out – Calvin Abueva, Dondon Hontiveros and Jvee Casio, with Baguio saddled with five, while two from SMB – Chris Ross and Gabby Espinas – took to the showers, but not after doing all the damage they could wreak on the Aces’ dreams of ending it all that evening.
More than complacency, Compton felt it was over-eagerness that may have burdened the Aces, who committed 21 turnovers, 10 more than SMB, as they kept pushing the pace, thinking perhaps that the Beermen would eventually wither, especially after the defending champions fell behind by 11 three-quarters into the fourth period.
When that didn’t happen, and Lassiter and Espinas, who had 26 and 21 points, respectively, and combined for 17 of SMB’s 29 points in the last 12 minutes, kept the Beermen on fire, the worn-out Aces, except for Vic Manuel, folded instead when the game went into overtime.
And yet for all the euphoria and relief SMB is experiencing after forcing a fifth game, Alaska is still in command and remains much in control, with three more chances to clinch a 15th franchise title.
But all this can change with a whiff of more fresh air coming in as a result of more windows opening.
June Mar Fajardo might be too big a fellow to squeeze through a small breach in the wall, but a door that swings open would let him in without a hitch. That’s something Alaska can’t allow to happen. Forget Game 7 and all its possibilities. For the Aces, Game 5 is where they ought to lock all doors and windows and throw away the key.
San Miguel will come knocking by 7 tomorrow evening. Alaska better not answer.