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Finals subplot thickens

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Subplots cannot overshadow the main theme for dramatic importance, but they can compete for attention by remaining relevant unto the final reckoning.

Two Friday’s ago, the crown was all set to settle on the head of Alaska forward Vic Manuel as Finals MVP of the Smart Bro-PBA Philippine Cup. He had scored 17 points with 7 rebounds in leading the Aces to an 82-75 victory and a commanding 3-0 lead over shorthanded San Miguel Beer in the best-of-7 championship series, and he left the Quezon Convention Center in Lucena City after Game 3 with the chants of M-V-P ringing in his ears.

Manuel’s coronation seemed inevitable. No team in the history of the PBA has come back to tie the series after falling behind, 0-3, and only one ballclub – ironically, Alaska against Robert Jaworski’s Gordon’s Gin in the 1997 Commissioner’s Cup Finals – has succeeded in closing the gap at 3-2 before succumbing to the law of averages.

The idea, therefore, of any team winning four in a-row after dropping three straight was implausible, to say the least. Embattled defending champion SMB had to avert a sweep in Game 4 and extend the championship all the way to a winner-take-all Game 7 to come close to denying the PBA’s most dominant post-up player since Nelson Asaytono his due.

But there was no way the Beermen could possibly pull off such Herculean feat under the circumstances – not with the great odds stacked against them and not without 6-foot-10 center June Mar Fajardo, who continued to nurse a swollen left knee hyper-extended in the semis against Rain or Shine, to give them a shot.

It was in Game 4 at the Philsports Arena in Pasig that Manuel’s crowning was to take place to coincide with the Aces dusting off the Beermen for revenge and redemption after SMB beat Alaska in two conference championships last season, including the Game 7 heartbreaker in the 2014 Philippine Cup finals.

Inside the press room minutes before the game, with hundreds of multi-colored balloons hanging from the rafters above the playing court outside, a rectangular, gray cardboard box was brought in. In it was the glittering PBAPC-Cignal Finals MVP plaque to be awarded by a representative of the PBA Press Corps should the Aces end it all that evening.

A space underneath the Finals MVP inscription was left open to be filled up later by whoever comes out most deserving. Although vacant against the glow cast by the fluorescent lights, it wasn’t difficult to imagine Vic Manuel’s name adorning it.

Chosen 9th overall out of Philippine School of Business and Administration by Globalport in the 2012 draft, making brief stops at Meralco and Air21 before finding a home and flourishing at Alaska, the 6-foot-4 Manuel, noted for his fierce offensive rebounding and one-handed turnarounds and semi-hooks, had 24 points and 5 rebounds when the Aces rallied from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit to take Game 1 of the series, 100-91, on Jan. 19 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

The Licab, Nueva Ecija native, 28, again took command in Game 2 two days later at the Big Dome, with 18 points and 7 rebounds as Alaska dodged a bullet, 83-80, for a 2-0 lead. Next came the rousing Game 3 victory and Manuel suddenly found himself fending off talks of enthronement via Finals MVP recognition.

“Wala akong mako-comment diyan dahil gusto ko muna mag-champion. ‘Yun lang ang importante sa akin,” Manuel, the only player who won an MVP trophy in both the Philippine Basketball League and the PBA D-League, told Spin.ph.
InterAksyon.com offered a similar premise and drew the same response.

“Gusto ko lang muna makapag-champion kami,” Manuel said. “Pinaka-importante sa akin makaisa man lang kasi pangatlong paghaharap na namin ito. Nadalawahan na nila kami last season.”

His modesty and aversion to individual glory served him well when all hell broke loose for although Manuel had no inkling at the time, a reversal of fortune brought about by gale-force winds of change was about to shake the PBA to its foundation – and with it, the Aces’ formidable 3-0 lead.

Holding an 11-point spread with 3:30 remaining in regulation, the Aces were just about ready to unfurl the championship streamer when the Beermen came charging back with a 14-0 run to take a three-point edge down to the final second. A last-gasp 3-pointer by Cyrus Baguio sent the game into overtime but the scent of blood was unconcealable and SMB finished the job with a 12-point barrage in the extra period, 110-104.

Game 4 was pivotal, and although Manuel again led Alaska with 20 points, including their first two baskets in OT, the Beermen, because of the Aces’ failure to put them away, chanced upon a most valuable lifeline: the knowledge that they can beat the Aces even without June Mar Fajardo.

Alaska must have sensed it too despite SMB coach Leo Austria’s pronouncements that Fajardo won’t be available earlier than Game 7, but the realization may have come a little too late.

When the Big Fella arrived in Game 4 to accept the Best Player of the Conference award, and stayed long enough to savor the epic win that did away with the sharp sword of a 4-0 shutout dangling over their heads, it was clear San Miguel was laying the groundwork of an earth-shaking move.

That came late in Game 5 when Fajardo, who trotted into the playing court for the pre-game warmup dressed for the occasion, checked in and immediately hit first shot in the series – a step-back jumper against Noy Baclao in front of the Alaska bench.

Fajardo went on to debut in the finals with 13 points and 4 rebounds in 16:28 minutes, drawing so much attention inside and allowing Arwind Santos a breath of fresh air against Alaska’s defense to score points and pace SMB to another overtime blowout win, 86-73.

Manuel was still spectacular with 25 points even as the Aces’ lost their second straight game. But Fajardo’s return from injury and SMB cutting Alaska’s series advantage to 3-2 grabbed the headlines and provided a sudden twist in the subtext of the unfolding drama – with one 16-minute performance, the Finals MVP award, like Sauron’s ring, began looking for a new owner.

Fajardo all but claimed it in Game 6.

Scoring 16 points, Fajardo had 8 in the fourth quarter, where Marcio Lassiter got so many open looks and poured 17 of his 26 points, and the Beermen, once written off as a footnote in history, became the first team in PBA folklore to tie the series, 3-3, after trailing, 0-3.

Now they stand on the brink of an even more mind-boggling achievement.

True to his form in his breakout conference finals, Manuel, like Horatius at the bridge, had 21 points in Game 6 as he struggled valiantly to turn back the Beermen. But even he can only do so much when his teammates shoot 4 of 22 from three-point range and the opposition kept pounding the ball inside to the one man the Aces can’t stand against.

So as the plot thickens in Game 7 tomorrow, so does the secondary storyline between two men – both desirous of something else than self-aggrandizement but who are nonetheless entwined by the dramatic events that have taken place in the last 15 days, and by the searing obsession that drives their respective teams as they hurtle towards a final, incontrovertible end.