MANILA, Philippines – Two down, and one more to go.
Even as the San Miguel Beermen celebrated their triumph in the 2017 PBA Commissioner's Cup on Sunday, much of the focus was on what was left to achieve for the winningest franchise in the PBA. Having already ruled the first and second conferences, all that is left for the Beermen to do is to complete a Grand Slam.
San Miguel coach Leo Austria, who has guided San Miguel to five championships over the past eight conferences, grinned awkwardly when asked about the Grand Slam.
"Before, talagang hindi ko iniisip," said Austria, who has previously described the feat as a "long shot," even for a team as powerful as the one he coaches. "But today, legit na."
"Kami lang ang contender for a Grand Slam," he said.
COMMISSIONER'S CUP BREAKTHROUGH
That San Miguel would win the All-Filipino Conference was not a surprise, given their remarkable core of June Mar Fajardo, Arwind Santos, Chris Ross, Alex Cabagnot, and Marcio Lassiter. However, their campaigns in the Commissioner's Cup have been more difficult.
In 2015, they didn't even make it to the playoffs of the second conference; in 2016, their promising campaign was derailed by import woes. In 2017, however, San Miguel found the right import in Charles Rhodes, who could form a "twin towers" arrangement with Fajardo, but also served as the perfect fulcrum when they wanted to play at a faster pace.
It all came to a head in Game 6 of the Finals against the TNT KaTropa, when Fajardo found himself in foul trouble. That pushed Austria to go to a "small ball" line-up, with Rhodes surrounded by Santos, Lassiter, Cabagnot and Rosss – wing players who can all knock down perimeter jumpers.
The gamble worked. Even with Fajardo – the reigning three-time MVP – playing only 14 minutes and scoring only two points, San Miguel completely dominated the sixth game, routing TNT 115-91. Their three-point shooting clicked, and the Beermen knocked down 12 triples in the contest.
"I think somewhere along the way, I think lalabas ito," Austria said of his team's incredible showing in Game 6. "Hindi pa namin nakikita 'yung inilalaro ng players namin since the All-Filipino, but it happened in the playoffs."
It was their first Commissioner's Cup title since 2000, and completed Austria's collection of trophies. He now has three Philippine Cup titles, one Governors' Cup, and one Commissioner's Cup. The one thing he is missing is the Grand Slam.
Whenever he is asked about the Grand Slam, Austria has a ready answer, and he went to it again in the wake of their Game 6 win.
"It's in the mind of so many people, and we're the only team that can do it," he said. "But it's a long shot."
The Grand Slam remains the pinnacle of what a team can achieve in the PBA. San Miguel has already done it once, back in the 1989 season, with Norman Black at the helm. Since then, only Tim Cone-coached squads – the 1996 Alaska team and the 2014 San Mig team – have duplicated the feat.
Even as he still sees it as a long shot, Austria knows that there is no avoiding the talks of a Grand Slam. Thus, he stresses that for SMB to make history anew, they will have to be at their best in the Governors' Cup.
"It's not that easy to win, dahil sinasabi ko nga, every team in the PBA is trying to beat us," he said. "It requires a lot of hard work and preparation."
"One game at a time," he stressed. "We need to have a plan in the third conference, dahil alam natin na every team ay nagbi-build up. They're trying to have a strong team for them to have a chance to beat us."
The San Miguel players themselves obviously want to first bask in the glory of winning another title. Celebrating championships have become quite the habit for the Beermen, and the feeling of lifting up trophies at the end of conferences "never gets old," as Ross said.
"When you win a championship, you always want that feeling," said the point guard, who won Best Player of the Conference honors for the first time in his career.
"We know that feeling – we won five out of eight championships, and those three conferences that we didn't win, everyone was down. Once you reach that mountaintop, every chance you get, you want to get there," he added.
"We're trying to win as many as we can," Ross stressed.
However, they all know that it won't be easy. Cabagnot, the Finals MVP, did not want to entertain Grand Slam talk just yet. "We're going to celebrate muna and get our bearings," said the "Crunchman," who sealed the Finals MVP trophy by registering a triple-double in Game 6.
Fajardo, who willingly sacrificed his minutes in Games 5 and 6 as San Miguel went to a smaller line-up, was of similar mind.
"Gusto lang namin i-cherish 'yung moment na ito at magpahinga," the big man said. "Tsaka na namin iisipin 'yun."
Yet Fajardo is deeply motivated to get that title as well, and already anticipates the uphill climb that they will have to embark on in order to do so. "Kahit sabihin na maliit ang import, hindi pa rin sila biro," he said. "Gusto naming makuha 'yun."
For Santos, the veteran team captain, winning a Grand Slam is a chance for him and his teammates to etch their names alongside the icons of the San Miguel franchise – names that include some of the best in Philippine basketball.
"Grand Slam – isa 'yan sa history na hindi pa namin nakukuha ng batch na 'to," he said. "Kasi pag nagkaroon (ng Grand Slam), mako-compare ka sa mga players dati – kila Ramon Fernandez, Hector Calma."
"Sana makuha namin," he added. "Hindi sa sasapawan namin sila. Pero ito 'yung motivation namin, na hangga't maari, makakuha kami ng hindi pa nakukuha ng mga players noon."
San Miguel will have at least two weeks to rest and prepare for the final step in their pursuit of a Grand Slam. The Governors' Cup won't start until July 19; until then, they are going to recover from a long campaign and work on their chemistry with import Wendell McKines.
Rhodes, the import who helped San Miguel break through in the Commissioner's Cup, just beamed when asked about McKines.
"I told him the pressure's on him now," said Rhodes of McKines, who has been in town for at least a month now. "The pressure's off my back. I'm a champion."
"But I just gave him my encouragement. And he's going to get the job done; he's a hard-worker."