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SMB eyes equalizer

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Game Today
(Araneta Coliseum)
7 p.m. – Alaska vs San Miguel

Are the victory balloons about to be moved yet again to another location? Or will they finally fall tonight before a cherished dream turns into a nightmare?

Five days after they were supposed to rain down in joyous celebration on the Alaska Aces at the Philsports Arena, and two days after they were again scheduled to be released for a belated bash at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, the hundreds of multi-colored balloons, now a bit shrunk and withered when gazed at even from far below, remain tethered on the Big Dome rafters, awaiting their fate.

For the third straight time, Alaska guns for the Smart Bro-PBA Philippine Cup title when the Aces take on the suddenly rejuvenated San Miguel Beermen in Game 6 of the best-of-7 finals, with SMB, back in full strength with the return of June Mar Fajardo, looking to drag the series to a winner-take-all Game 7.

The Smart Araneta Coliseum will still house the sixth game of the finals. But if SMB prevails, action will shift, along with the balloons – unless new ones are brought in their place – to the Mall of Asia Arena where Alaska will either be the leading character in modern day PBA history or the vanquished villain when the Beermen rewrite it.

In all, it will be the fourth venue in the championship series after Game 3, which put Alaska on the brink of a 4-0 shutout, was played at the Quezon Convention Center in Lucena City.

As disappointed as they are perhaps at failing to finish off SMB twice now, the Aces aren’t exactly in big trouble just yet.

Though their dreams of a redeeming sweep got crushed in overtime, 110-104, in Game 4 last Sunday, they still hung on to a 3-2 lead. But they now face a more daunting task of wrapping it up with the 6-foot-10 Fajardo activated, having risked aggravating a left knee injury by playing in Game 5 Wednesday and providing the difference in SMB’s breakaway 86-73 OT victory.

Defying coach Leo Austria’s wishes to see action no earlier than Game 7, if the series gets to that, Fajardo, who has the green light from doctors, suited up and played, hitting the first basket he took – a step-back jumper in front of the Alaska bench late in the first quarter.

By the time he reached double figures in overtime, heads on the Aces bench were shaking in awe at how Fajardo, whose debut in the finals was greeted with a loud roar and chants of M-V-P, had appeared to put behind him so quickly an excruciating injury.

“He insisted on playing,” said Austria. “Win or lose, June Mar said he wanted to be inside the court, not on the bench, for Game 5. Nothing anybody could do about that.”

Alaska tried to do something about it, but Fajardo rose to the challenge, hitting turnaround jumpers, snaring rebounds and blocking shots, forcing Sonny Thoss and Vic Manuel, even Calvin Abueva, to adjust their releases from the shaded lane.

He seemed to have some difficulty reaching over for the ball when he posts up or moving laterally, but he displayed the exuberance of a little child almost after each SMB basket, smiling widely and jumping up and down.

Requested to appear with Austria for the post-game media interview, Fajardo begged off to have his knee iced. He was the last one out of the locker room and although he walked slowly, the dragging steps he showed when he accepted his third consecutive Philippine Cup Best Player of the Conference award before Game 4 were hardly noticeable.

Arwind Santos, the reluctant leader of the Beermen, finally asserted his authority, unloading 22 points and hauling down 16 rebounds with four assists and four blocks, complimenting Fajardo’s defensive presence in crucial stretches of the game.

Alex Compton, the Aces coach, meanwhile, raised pertinent questions regarding the huge disparity in fouls and free throws awarded. Alaska was whistled for 37 calls while SMB got 17. The foul line was an even more lopsided matter: 35 charities to 5 given.

“Those numbers kinda jump out of the stats,” said Compton, who maintained he wasn’t insinuating anything when he referred to the contrasting stats to reporters. “I’ll leave it up to you guys to put a spin on that.”