(Smart Araneta Coliseum)
7 p.m. – Rain or Shine vs Alaska (Game 1)
Welcome to the Hunger Games, where the crownless soon shall be king.
Mythology and Hollywood films aside, the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters and Alaska Aces inevitably can relate to both when they kick off the rarest of PBA occurrences, a battle for a championship without at least one San Miguel or MVP team contending.
It has been 16 years but now it has happened: Rain or Shine and Alaska, both without a crown for at least two years, clashing in Game 1 at 7 tonight at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, with the recent league champions in ruins by the wayside.
This best-of-7 series for the Oppo-PBA Commissioner’s Cup belongs to the wannabes, pretenders and the bridegrooms, talented and well-coached ballclubs whose fate in the last few seasons was to give the powerhouse, big name teams tough workouts in the quarter playoffs and the Final Four before fading off into the sunset.
The Elasto Painters first swept the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings in the quarterfinals before denying Philippine Cup champion San Miguel Beer a shot at the only title that eluded them last year with 3-1 semis victory, effectively derailing in mid-season the Beermen’s bid for Grand Slam II.
In the same vein, the Aces did as much damage in dismantling the stranglehold of the two corporate giants, laying waste to defending champion Tropang TNT in the playoffs before torpedoing torpedo the Meralco Bolts’ goal of reaching the finals for the first time by pulling off a thriller in the deciding Game 5 of their Final Four series.
So they meet in the championship – RoS, without one since the 2012 Governors’ Cup after going empty in their last four final appearances, and Alaska, thrice brutalized by San Miguel in three previous finals after winning it all in the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup.
Similarities in their failures give way to contrast and differences.
Looking for only their second PBA title, the E-Painters will be guided by Yeng Guiao, who will be dividing his time in Games 1 and 2 between campaigning for reelection in the first district of his home province of Pampanga and gunning for his seventh championship, while the Aces, 14 titles in 31 post-season appearances, will be steered by Alex Compton, still in search of his first trophy.
“We have two very hungry, very talented, brilliantly-coached teams going at it in the finals,” said PBA commissioner Chito Narvasa during the pre-Finals press conference yesterday at the PBA Café in Metrowalk, Pasig. “I look forward to a fast-paced, very exciting series.”
Compton, along with Rob Dozier, Chris Banchero, Vic Manuel, Sonny Thoss, Dondon Hontiveros and Calvin Abueva, talked alternately of the Aces’ mindset on the eve of their fourth finals in the last five conferences, while assistant coach Caloy Garcia, representing Guiao, spoke of the E-Painters’ hopes, sharing the microphone with Beau Belga, Pierre Henderson-Niles, Paul Lee, Raymond Almazan and Maverick Ahanmisi.
Both coaches showed mutual respect, and even the players, some of the most bruising and hard-driving in the league, deferred to each other.
“Rain or Shine’s confidence level is through the roof, and if we don’t bring our best game in the series, then it’s going to be real tough,” said Compton, who expressed his “affinity” for E-Painters management, which recruited him as an import and later an assistant coach when it joined the PBA in 2006.
Compton brushed aside suggestions that Rain or Shine, compared to Alaska, lacked championship experience, a factor that could be decisive in the series.
“What have they done? Nine straight playoffs? That’s a lot,” the Aces coach said. “We have actually two experienced teams going at it.”
“Our only advantage perhaps is that we have more days to prepare since they had to go through a Game 5 that was decided only in the closing minutes,” said Garcia.
Under Narvasa’s watchful eye and the new league rules that frown on excessive holding and overly hard fouls, Belga and Abueva guaranteed physicality will not be a scarce commodity in the series.
“Dagdagan natin ng anghang kung kulang pa,” said Belga.
“Magiging matindi ‘to kasi me trophy ng nakataya e,” said Abueva.
The two imports, Dozier and Henderson-Niles, teammates at Memphis University, along with Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, when the Tigers reached the 2008 NCAA Finals but lost to the Kansas U Jayhawks, paid tribute to each other’s abilities, although the RoS reinforcement provided some veiled challenge in jest.
“We got defense here, I don’t know about his team,” said Henderson-Niles, RoS’ fourth import after the injured Wayne Chism.
Alaska will continue to miss point guard Jvee Casio and forward Vic Manuel although the 6-foot-4 forward gave indication he could be back next week in time for Game 3 if he gets the green light from doctors.
Asked about the Aces’ dreaded fullcourt pressure defense, Lee and Ahanmisi, who will be sharing playmaking chores for the E-Painters, shared the view that taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers will be the key to neutralizing the Alaska trap.
“Kailangan din magtulungan kami dahil di naman puwede na basta ibaba ko lang yung bola,” said Lee, who dislocated his shoulder in Game 2 of the 2012 Governors’ Cup finals and was on the bench with a sling when RoS won the championship.