This is definitely getting to be a habit. The San Mig Coffee Mixers have just won the 2014 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, their third straight title and fourth under multi-titled mentor Tim Cone. They accomplished this feat even after finishing as the sixth seed entering the playoffs, needing to win several do-or-die games to even enter the Finals, and then proceeding to hand three losses to what looked like an unstoppable force in the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters.
From Milk to Coffee
So many have already written and talked about how Cone’s arrival with the Purefoods/B-Meg/San Mig Coffee franchise in 2012 effectively created the PBA’s newest dynasty. After winning 13 titles with the Alaska franchise, including the ever-elusive PBA Grand Slam in 1996, Cone shocked the Philippine basketball world by uprooting himself from his comfort zone and joining the powerhouse San Miguel Corporation group and the bottomless pockets of Ramon S. Ang.
By then having access to a deep yet underachieving roster bannered by two-time Most Valuable Player James Yap and workhorse Marc Pingris, Cone’s implementation of the famed Triangle Offense promised to free up Yap for more scoring opportunities. However, it was Cone’s commitment to defense (so often underrated in his over two decades of handling the Fred Uytengsu-owned Alaska) that would make Pingris a superstar.
Through the eye of a needle
This latest championship seemed improbable just weeks ago, particularly after the Mixers practically limped into the quarterfinals matchup with Alaska. Needing to string together two straight wins after the Aces won the first game in their series, San Mig Coffee turned to PJ Simon to bail them out and book a spot in the semifinals against upstart Air 21.
Franz Pumaren’s overachieving Express team already surprised many by making it to the semis. Without solid play at the point guard spot, Air 21 was powered by the ageless wonder that is Asi Taulava, journeyman human Swiss army knife Sean Anthony, and Pumaren’s La Salle duo of Joseph Yeo and Mark Cardona. But, as is their recent tradition, Cone’s quintet remained steady and took care of the Express for a third straight PBA Finals appearance.
The shock of handing the mighty Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters their first loss of the Commissioner’s Cup in Game One via a 95-80 blowout didn’t completely satisfy the veteran Cone. He looked at the opposite sideline and recognized that TNT mentor Norman Black was just as smart a coach as he is, and is famed for making adjustments whether in-game or in mid-series. True enough, riding the coattails of Best Player of the Conference Jayson Castro, the Texters bounced back with an 86-76 victory in the second game.
Now that Talk ‘N Text had secured a game, this series was projected to go for the full five games. Still licking their wounds after being benched by Cone for much of the second half of Game Two, Yap and Simon were determined to redeem themselves for the slightest edge in these Finals. And deliver they did, together with SMC import James Mays. In a low-scoring contest that fit right in with Cone’s defense-oriented philosophy, the Mixers turned the tables on the Texters even as Castro claimed his Best Player of the Conference award and Richard Howell secured the Best Import prize before the game started.
Simon’s game-long brilliance resulted in 17 markers, Mays delivered 20 points and 14 rebounds. But it was Yap who dealt the telling blows in the end including a jumper and a crucial pass to Mays for a corner jumper. In what Cone described as “a game for the ages,” San Mig Coffee stood tall with a 77-75 decision and were now on the cusp of yet another championship.
Another SMC championship
In what was effectively the PBA’s version of “Throwback Thursday,” Game Four was played at the league’s home in the 1980s, the Philsports Arena in Pasig. In a venue that brought back championship memories for both coaches, the veritable furnace of the former ULTRA was hot from the outset. Starting the game with a 17-1 run, it looked like Talk ‘N Text was determined to force a decisive fifth game thanks mostly to their outside shooting. KG Canaleta and Jimmy Alapag presided over this early barrage, but as we all know, games aren’t won in the first quarter.
Trailing 52-38 at the half, Cone was flabbergasted with his team’s performance. “At halftime, I screamed at the guys, I yelled at them, told them, ‘You want to rest already for Gave Five?’” he mentioned afterwards. Instead of folding though, the championship savvy of SMC exploded with a 16-0 run for a shocking 69-68 lead in the third. This time, it was prized rookie Ian Sangalang who did most of the damage, together with the Mixers’ trademark defense. This would be a short-lived lead, however, thanks to back-to-back triples from the Gilas-Pilipinas backcourt of Castro and Alapag.
A final TNT outburst in the fourth period saw them push the lead back up to nine at 85-76. Then the walls came crumbling down. With Canaleta missing, Larry Fonacier not connecting, and the entire team settling for outside jumpers, the Tropang Texters’ hold on the lead gradually slipped away. For all of his past heroics, Castro was surprisingly quiet in this game with only five points, and looked hobbled by an injury late.
Barroca, the Finals MVP of the Philippine Cup, would once again come up big when the Mixers needed him, delivering on triples, drives to the basket, and floaters in front of a hapless Talk ‘N Text defense. His endgame heroics coupled with a big three-pointer from Yap, sealed Game Four and the Commissioner’s Cup for San Mig Coffee with a 100-91 score.
Going for the Grand Slam?
With Cone’s record 17th PBA championship, this also marks the 12th title for the San Mig Coffee franchise even as Yap took home the Finals MVP trophy. It will be a very short break for the champions as they now embark on the double-sided challenge of defending their Governors’ Cup trophy as well as bidding for the elusive Grand Slam. Talk ‘N Text came closest when it won the 2012 Philippine Cup and Commissioner’s Cup before Petron derailed them in the Governors’ Cup Finals.
In the meantime, San Mig Coffee gets to bask once more in the limelight that it has gotten so accustomed to being in as, once again, they are crowned champions!
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.