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Fajardo’s return game-changer

SMB Coach Leo Austria gets a victory ride. Photo by Ernie U. Sarmiento

It was a gambit that could have fooled even the late Bobby Fischer. And it would have earned the Alaska Aces a brilliancy prize had they managed to pull it off.

As it is, the 2016 Smart-Bro PBA Philippine Cup Finals might not be known so much for San Miguel Beer incredibly coming back from the depths of despair in the form of a 0-3 deficit in the best-of-7 title series but for perhaps the most bizarre move ever perpetrated in the sport of basketball.

Compared to what the Aces carried out with only a second gone in Game 7 of the championship Wednesday, calling three consecutive timeouts and then pulling out their starting lineup in front of a stupefied crowd of nearly 24,000 at the Mall of Asia Arena, the Hack-a-Shaq strategy instituted by the NBA Dallas Mavericks is mere child’s play.

Alaska coach Alex Compton wouldn’t talk about it in the press room, asking reporters to hazard a guess instead after San Miguel put down a raging Aces rally from 21 points to clinch the winner-take-all, 96-89, and rewrite PBA history by being the first team to win four in a-row after dropping the first three games of the finals.

Previously, 12 teams had gone up 3-0 and all went on to finish the job. By weathering a Chris Banchero-fueled Alaska fightback that brought the Aces within five halfway in the fourth, SMB avoided becoming the victim of the 13th such champion.

A collapse in sudden death would have been catastrophic for the Beermen. Game 7 was theirs for the taking, with momentum on their side, June Mar Fajardo back from a hyper-extended left knee that had kept him out of the first four games of the series, and the SMB gunners – Marcio Lassiter, Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot – having rediscovered their shooting touch.

The seventh game was a formality for San Miguel. It was in Game 4 where Alaska’s coronation was to have taken place.

With multi-colored balloons at the Philsports Arena rafters ready to fall, Alaska took an 11-point lead with only three minutes remaining. And though nowhere in sight at that point, brooms just as well could have been brought out on the floor to sweep away the dethroned forms of the San Miguel Beermen at the final buzzer.

But there would be no celebration. Instead it was Cyrus Baguio needing a clutch three-pointer to save the Aces at the end of regulation.

Brushing aside last rites, the Beermen came charging back behind Lassiter and former Alaska forward Gabby Espinas before turning the reins over to Cabagnot and point guard Chris Ross in the extra period as SMB engineered one of the most memorable escapes in franchise history, 110-104.

That 11-3 SMB run in the final 3:30 of Game 4 came down as the darkest hour in Alaska’s bid for revenge and redemption, a scoreless spell until Baguio’s 3 that opened the door to a dangerous opponent and paved the way for the eager return of the Big Fella.

Over at the corner of the Beermen bench, Fajardo, who earlier accepted the Best Player of the Conference award with a slight limp, rose to his feet in jubilation, flashing a big smile and pointing at the balloons still tethered on the catwalk.

As it turned out they would stay up there, only somewhere else, until three games later.

Game 5 saw Fajardo trotting into the Smart Araneta Coliseum playing court, joining the Beermen in the pre-game warmup and taking a couple of jumpers from different spots on the floor.

He wasn’t supposed to play until Game 7, as announced by SMB coach Leo Austria, but with a few minutes left in the first quarter, Fajardo jogged to the official’s table amid chant’s of M-V-P and came in for Yancy de Ocampo.

His presence alone shifted the entire balance of power over from the Aces, who were still in shock at how Game 4 turned out, to the Beermen, who blew away Alaska by 13 points in another overtime triumph, 86-73.

Getting fresh looks from afar, Santos finished with 22 points, including four triples, while Fajardo announced his return with 13 points and four rebounds, providing ominous warning to the Aces when he said his knee, except for some tightness, felt stronger.

That was the beginning of the end for Alaska.

With the deficit down to 3-2, a feat only one ballclub had accomplished before – Alaska, ironically, against Robert Jaworski’s Gordon’s Gin in the 1997 Commissioner’s Cup Finals – the Beermen worked to put together something that has also never been done in the PBA – winning Game 6 and forcing a Game 7 for all the marbles.

That single-minded effort resulted in a 100-89 blowout win in Game 6 where Lassiter did his best Stephen Curry, pouring 17 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, and Fajardo adding eight of his 16. SMB trailed, 29-22, after the first quarter but outscored Alaska, 33-22, in the last 12 minutes.

That set the stage for Game 7.

Warm bodies numbering 23,616 were on hand for the final countdown and a roar went up after Santos was whistled for a jump ball violation, giving first possession to Alaska with a just second off the game clock. But before the inbounds play commenced, the Aces suddenly called a full timeout in what would be the first of three consecutive – all mandatory TV timeouts – throwing the entire venue, packed to spillover capacity, into a state of utter bewilderment.

The confusion didn’t end there. After the Aces, who continued warming up and stretching as the three timeouts run out, concluded their baffling opening ritual, a fourth blast came out of the speakers and new Alaska players, including Sonny Thoss, Vic Manuel and Calvin Abueva, reported to the table for a platoon substitution.

Only then did Game 7 start.

Whether they were impressed or mystified, the Beermen showed no indication. But after four lead changes and two deadlocks, the defending champs took control of their destiny, opening a 15-8 lead on the way to a 21-point spread near the end of the third quarter.

Relentlessly full-court pressing and forcing successive SMB turnovers, the Aces managed to come within five points twice, the latter at 77-72 on a Noy Baclao basket underneath. Both times, however, the Beermen came through in the clutch, with 3-pointers from Santos and Ross, who hit 4 of 6 overall, sparking and ending a 10-3 run that was more than exhausted Alaska could handle in the closing minutes.

And so the balloons finally fell, the Beermen basked in the glory of an unprecedented achievement, and PBA fans resigned to a lopsided championship after SMB went up by 21 got the thrill of their lives as the Aces refused to give up the ghost of a departed dream.

San Miguel won because it had June Mar Fajardo, who made life easier for the team’s shooters, because nobody knew Chris Ross could shoot 3s that well, because a few expected Yancy de Ocampo to still have it takes, and because the Beermen came to Game 7 ready for war, not to play a board game.

As for Alaska’s three timeouts and platoon sub to start the game, unraveling the reason behind them may be best left to those who like to ponder the mysteries of the world. After all, it looks like the move is bound to remain a riddle for a long time.

Was it a gambit that backfired? Alex Compton wouldn’t say.