MANILA, Philippines – The San Miguel Beermen may be the No. 1 seed in the 2018 PBA Philippine Cup playoffs, but their preparation for the quarterfinals left something to be desired.
That's because the three-time defending champions did not know exactly who they were going to face in the quarterfinals until Sunday – or just two days before they return to action at the Mall of Asia Arena.
SMB coach Leo Austria was in attendance at the Araneta Coliseum on Sunday night, when TNT KaTropa crushed Phoenix, 118-97, to claim the last quarterfinals berth and set up a duel with them on Tuesday.
"Sabi nga ng mga player ko, parang nawala 'yung advantage namin. No. 1 kami pero until now, hindi pa namin alam kung sino kalaban namin eh," Austria lamented while watching TNT put the finishing touches on the rout.
"So nawala 'yung advantage eh. And then, 'yung team na makakalaban mo pa is 'yung championship-caliber na team," he added.
Indeed, Austria is rightfully wary of the KaTropa. TNT memorably dragged them to a seven-game war in last season's Philippine Cup, and gave them all they can handle in the Commissioner's Cup finals as well.
While San Miguel was triumphant in both series, TNT's performances have given Austria reason to worry – even if they do own a twice-to-beat advantage over the KaTropa in their upcoming showdown.
"Alam natin malakas ito eh. Kailangan mong paghandaan itong mabuti dahil championship caliber itong team na ito eh," he said.
Austria noted that the presence of Jericho Cruz, who was acquired by TNT from Rain or Shine just two weeks ago, gives the KaTropa a different look and adds depth to their already strong bench. Against Phoenix, Cruz fired 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting and appeared to have no trouble fitting in Nash Racela's system.
"Jericho Cruz is one of the key players in any team," said Austria, who coached Cruz in his college days at Adamson University. "That's why I'm really worried about this team."
Nevertheless, Austria is upbeat that his players will rise to the challenge, as they have done so time and time again during the past few years. As he observed, San Miguel has a tendency to play at the level of their opponents.
"I hope na 'yung ego at saka 'yung pride ng mga players ay talagang mag-prevail dahil some of the games namin eh, 'yung pride nila ang umiiral eh, ayaw nilang patalo. Maybe because of our experience in a lot of championships," he said.
San Miguel and TNT face off on Tuesday at the Mall of Asia Arena. A second game, if necessary, will be on Thursday at the Araneta Coliseum.
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