SMB vs Alaska: Battle of wills

By Jason Inocencio

Posted at Jan 14 2015 06:19 PM | Updated as of Jan 15 2015 02:19 AM

Three games into the 2015 PBA Philippine Cup Finals, it’s clear that San Miguel Beer and Alaska have two very distinct styles of play. When one is able to impose their style on the other, it ultimately decides who wins the game.

There is no shortage of stars and take-charge guys on both sides, and since there are no imports, every man that Alaska coach Alex Compton and SMB coach Leo Austria calls from the bench knows they will have some time to showcase their wares. Heading into Game Four, Alaska holds a tenuous 2-1 series lead and the pressure is clearly on the Beermen to tie the series Wednesday night.

Solid bangers versus 'larong mayaman'?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the first two games, though, was the physicality that became prevalent. Alaska has built a reputation as a bruising team since the days when Luigi Trillo was in charge of the Aces. This is embodied best by “The Beast” himself, Calvin Abueva, but several of his teammates have also shown that they won’t back down from a bumping. These include Sonny Thoss, Eric Menk, Ping Exciminiano, Vic Manuel, Sam Eman, the currently injured Gabby Espinas and even what are perceived as the “cleaner” Aces in Dondon Hontiveros, JVee Casio, RJ Jazul and Cyrus Baguio.

A few conferences ago, then playing for the Air21 Express, current Barangay Ginebra San Miguel guard Joseph Yeo labeled the team bearing the San Miguel Beer colors as “larong mayaman.” It was an insult that cut to the core of several of the Beermen, a proud franchise that has won the most titles in league history. Before Austria took over, there was a constant perception that several Beermen were high on flash and style but low on actually delivering in the clutch. It’s been the argument thrown mostly at Arwind Santos’ way despite his winning the MVP trophy in 2013.

San Miguel has been reconstructed to focus more on 2014 PBA MVP Junemar Fajardo’s play in the paint, and it’s been Austria’s mission to bring back some glory to the Beermen camp. Bringing back Alex Cabagnot to share point guard duties with Chris Ross and getting more touches for the Gilas duo of Chris Lutz and Marcio Lassiter has added versatility, length and hustle to the wings, while Ronald Tubid and the addition of rookies Ronald Pascual and David Semerad have seemingly given the team the missing swagger and toughness of SMB teams past.

Let’s get physical

Still, it’s doubtful anyone expected as much bumping and bruising as what we’ve seen in the first three games of the Finals. When the Philippine Cup started, it was clear that Coach Compton had finally gotten into Abueva’s head to stop the flopping that he’s become famous for since his San Sebastian days. Instead, the undersized forward has lived up to his “Beast” moniker by outhustling, outrebounding and outbanging the taller Beermen.

The result has been bruises on both sides, a particularly nasty cut on Santos’ forehead for meeting Abueva’s forearm during a rebound play, Alaska assistant coach Louie Alas making contact with a referee, and even ballboys and utility staff from both teams coming into contact with players. The little-used Semerad has been trying to answer Alaska’s gameplay by not backing down from both Hontiveros and Manuel with varying degrees of success.

Beermen choke, Aces rise from ashes

For San Miguel to relinquish a 22-point lead in Game One (leading to an 88-82 Alaska win in overtime) and a 21-point second half lead in Game Three (that led to a Alaska win), the Beermen’s mental toughness has to be questioned. As much as we praise the Aces for not giving up in the face of those deficits and roaring back to effectively punch San Miguel in their collective guts, we have to wonder why and how San Miguel could let it happen not once, but twice.

It also cannot be reiterated enough that most of the Alaska lineup has been together for over two years now, giving them familiarity and championship experience from their title in 2013. When Alaska decided to engage the Beermen in a shootout in Game Two, they were clearly falling into San Miguel’s trap. What transpired featured Santos coming back from the ugly Abueva cut and joining Lutz, Cabagnot and Lassiter in a three-point shooting display that knocked the Aces for a loop. The SMB 100-86 win had further ramifications, ending up in P64,600 worth of fines from Commissioner Chito Salud’s office being imposed on both teams.

If San Miguel Beer is going to tie this series, they can’t afford to engage Alaska in mindgames. Clearly, Fajardo hasn’t been his dominant self due to the double-teaming Alaska defense, as well as the rotating Thoss, Menk and Eman wearing him down. SMB is at its best when Fajardo is clicking inside and finding his shooters beyond the arc.

But credit has to be given to Compton for the rabid Aces defense, particularly the fast hands of Abueva and the unheralded Exciminiano who found himself in the thick of the Game Three comeback.

It might be a cliché to say this is defense versus offense, but that’s what we’ve seen over the course of three games so far. That, and the accusations thrown by both sides that each is using underhanded tactics to gain an upper hand. In other words, it’s been a must-watch series that is worthy of the Philippine Cup Finals.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.