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(Mall of Asia Arena)
7 p.m. – Alaska vs San Miguel
Which team will history look kindly on? The one seeking to rewrite it, or the one keen on leaving it intact?
Game 7 of the Smart Bro-PBA Philippine Cup Finals tonight, with all its suspense and drama, will provide the ultimate answer, with defending champion San Miguel Beer and the Alaska Aces, reprising an epic battle from last season and playing for all the marbles at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The opening jump, probably between Sonny Thoss and Arwind Santos, is at 7 p.m. and both teams, now locked in a 3-3 tie, are leaving nothing to chance when they clash for a place in the annals of the 41-year-old PBA. Already they have forged a rivalry that contains the prime ingredients of a long-standing blood feud reminiscent of the bitter Crispa-Toyota years, and now they take that matchup to a higher level.
SMB stole Game 7 of last year’s Philippine Cup Finals from Alaska and then swept the Aces, 4-0, in the Governors’ Cup championship to color with revenge and redemption the best-of-7 series of 2016’s first title showdown.
When Alaska went up 3-0 two Fridays ago as undermanned San Miguel reeled back from the absence of injured center June Mar Fajardo, the Beermen, as a consequence, fell into a hole from which no PBA team has climbed out from. All 16 teams, since the inception of the seven-game series in 1982, have gone on to wrap it up – either in four games (15) or five (1) – after winning the first three games, and the Aces looked ready to join that elite group of champions.
But SMB refused to die, fighting for survival in Game 4 and clawing its way back from 11 points down with 3:30 left in regulation to force overtime where the Beermen upended the Aces and averted a sweep, 110-104.
Fajardo’s return to action, after his teammates won Game 4 with him at the far corner of the bench, signaled the resurgence of the SMB shooters, with Arwind Santos (22 points) and Marcio Lassiter (26) alternately cutting down Alaska in Game Five in OT, 86-73, and the series-tying Game Six, 100-89.
So now they break the impasse following a four-day rest, with SMB, the 1989 Grand Slam champion, looking to become the first team to come back from a 0-3 deficit in the finals and win the title. Alaska, the 1996 Triple Crown winner, on the other hand, will be hoping to shoot down the Beermen’s bid, if it can rebound from three consecutive ego-deflating defeats.
The task won’t be easy for Alaska.
“We want history,” declared SMB coach Leo Austria after Game 6 last Friday. “Yan ang mahalaga sa’min.”
“Mas importante sa’min ang championship kesa sa bonus,” stressed Fajardo. “Huling laro na ‘to kaya buhos na lahat ng makakaya namin.”
And Santos vowed: “Kung ano pa nakatago sa baul, kailangan ilabas na namin lahat.”
SMB is gunning for its 22nd franchise title, while Alaska is aiming for its 15th.
Notwithstanding San Miguel’s motivational mantra, Alaska coach Alex Compton isn’t ruffled by all these talks of history getting rewritten.
Compton knows what is at stake and what’s demanded of them.
“It’s a one-game knockout for the All-Filipino Championship. It’s like deja vu all over again. We’re back on Wednesday in MOA against the best team in the league, which has the momentum on their side, and they’re rested, with their best players healthy,” Compton told PBA.ph.
“I still think we got to grab hold of our destiny. One team will make it happen, one won’t make enough plays to make it happen. One team will be champion, one won’t. That’s just how it works. This is a true character game for both teams. It should be pretty exciting.”
The four-day break is critical to both teams although maybe more so for Alaska.
Fajardo, no doubt, was able to give his recovering left knee more time to heal to enable it to take more pounding one last time this conference. But the 96 hours would have benefited the Aces more as they search for a remedy to what ails the cold-shooting Cyrus Baguio, find ways to keep point guard Jvee Casio steadier at crunch time, and map out a plan that would allow them to shut down Lassiter and Santos without leaving their interior defense at Fajardo’s mercy.
Momentum remains the driving force for San Miguel. Tradition, however, is what fuels Alaska.
History’s verdict comes down before midnight.