Throwing haymakers: The PBA Finals so far

By Jason Inocencio

Posted at May 12 2014 01:04 PM | Updated as of May 12 2014 09:04 PM

Dominance vs dynasty. That’s how the PBA has been billing the 2014 PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals between San Mig Coffee and Talk ‘N Text.

PJ Simon of San Mig (light) vs Jimmy Alapag of Talk N Text (dark). PBA images by Nuki Sabio

In truth, though, both terms can easily apply to both quintets. After all, the Tropang Texters have had a near-dynastic run over the past few seasons, nearly completing a Grand Slam and winning three straight PBA Philippine Cups.

For their part, the Mixers have been a virtual buzzsaw since coach Tim Cone took over their reins, with appearances in the Finals of nearly every tournament, and championship hardware to show for it.

Unbeaten Texters

This short Commissioner’s Cup saw only a single round-robin elimination format, which meant every game counted if a team was going to qualify for the playoffs. With import Richard Howell complementing the core of championship veterans, coach Norman Black’s Texters blitzed through the eliminations with a clean 9-0 record, leaving no doubt that this franchise was aching to reclaim lost glory.

A line-up of Jayson Castro, Ranidel de Ocampo, Jimmy Alapag, Kelly Williams, Larry Fonacier, KG Canaleta, Harvey Carey, Ryan Reyes and Danny Seigle is usually enough to send shivers down the spine of any opponent who stood in their way. It certainly helped that Black had his team hungry once again after failing to defend their Philippine Cup after their three year-reign.

They easily disposed of the dysfunctional and imploding Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, 97-84, while enjoying a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals. When most expected more of a challenge from the tough Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in the best-of-five semifinals, injuries to coach Yeng Guiao’s quintet in addition to the sheer domination of the Texters gave the series a quick ending in just three games.

A 13-0 record and a shot at history gave the MVP-owned franchise the tag of clear favorite heading into the Finals.

Diesel-fueled Mixers

As has been their modus operandi for most of the past few conferences, the San Mig Coffee Mixers started this Commissioner’s Cup relatively slowly. Rather than blaming it on a championship hangover after just winning the Philippine Cup, however, Cone’s quintet slowly regrouped and used their proven formula to snag another playoff spot.

Even with a 4-5 win-loss record and a lowly sixth seed, no PBA watcher in their right mind was counting out SMC.

James Mays might not have been former Mixers reinforcements Denzel Bowles or Marqus Blakely, but he too showed his own ability to deliver big numbers that fit into Cone’s triangle offense. Marc Pingris has been the defensive anchor and emotional heart of the Mixers, even as perennial MVP-candidate James Yap slowly regained his shooting touch in the face of numerous injuries.

Mark Barroca’s emergence turned him into the Finals MVP of the Philippine Cup, and his tag-team partnership with rookie Justin Melton always gave the Mixers an extra boost on both offense and defense. Veteran scorer PJ Simon, Alex Mallari, Joe Devance, and Rafi Reavis only got stronger with the additions of Melton and fellow rookie Ian Sangalang, giving Cone the flexibility to alter the look of his roster in several ways.

Though San Mig Coffee has won last year’s Governor’s Cup and this year’s Philippine Cup, there were times in the current Commissioner’s Cup when they looked like they were about to be knocked out.

Defending Commissioner’s Cup champions Alaska had two solid chances to beat the Mixers in the quarterfinals before eventually falling by the wayside. Upstart Air 21 seemed ready to take the next step behind Asi Taulava and Joseph Yeo, but not having Sean Anthony in the deciding game left them out of the Finals too.

Thus, almost as inevitable as the sun rising in the east, San Mig Coffee booked another spot in the Finals of a PBA conference.

It seemed fated that these two teams, crown jewels of their respective corporate families (San Mig Coffee for the San Miguel Corporation of Ramon S. Ang and Talk ‘N Text for the Metro Pacific Group of Manuel V. Pangilinan) would dispute this Commissioner’s Cup. Veteran American-born coaches on opposite sides know every trick in the book, leaving little room for error on either side. Rosters stacked with stars but also with role players who have been trusted to deliver when the stakes are at their highest.

Streak or supremacy?

Despite the 13-0 record heading into Game 1, Black knew that his team needed to be at their best when preparing for the Mixers. He warned of complacency, of the need for a sense of urgency, and for them to take this championship rather than expect it to be handed to them.

Instead, the Tropang Texters got a healthy smacking courtesy of Cone’s powerhouse lineup. The tandem of Simon and Sangalang proved deadly in the decisive third frame to give SMC a 70-57 lead entering the final quarter, and it would be enough for a 95-80 win. Game 1 was San Mig Coffee’s, the winning streak was over, and they now had TNT’s attention.

Cone was also well aware that his quintet had benefited from catching the Texters after a long break. It was up to the Texters to regroup and prove those 13 wins weren’t a fluke.

Jayson Castro, named the Best Point Guard in Asia during the 2013 FIBA-Asia Tournament held in Manila, answered the challenge in spades. Facing defenders of different shapes and sizes, ranging from Melton, Barroca, Simon, and even the hulking Pingris, Castro showed a dazzling array of moves resulting in steals, drives to the basket, fastbreak layups, and backbreaking triples to lead his squad back into contention.

It was clear that the Texters were force-feeding Ranidel de Ocampo to break out of his recent slump, and the stretch forward finally delivered in the third quarter as TNT built a commanding lead.

Even as the Mixers made their expected fourth-quarter rally with Melton and Barroca causing defensive pressure, Cone opted to sit out Yap and Simon (who combined for a measly 10 points) in what he explained was “looking at the big picture.”

His two veteran swingmen were exhausted from the previous two series, and for a short best-of-five Finals, Cone assessed the situation, opting to save both for the coming wars rather than tire them out in Game 2. That, plus Castro’s heroics and the re-emergence of Howell on the boards, gave Talk ‘N Text an 86-76 win, tying the series.

Now that both teams have shown the ability to throw haymakers, it’s a virtual best-of-three series to determine which team truly is the dominant dynasty of this PBA era.

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