MANILA, Philippines -- San Miguel is back in the PBA finals for the first time in three years, in what will be the sternest test yet for the team's new recruits.
The Beermen secured their place in the final of the 2022 PBA Philippine Cup after a 100-89 triumph over Meralco in Game 7 on Wednesday night. Up next for them is a best-of-seven series against defending All-Filipino champion Talk 'N Text.
This is San Miguel's first appearance in the PBA finals since the 2019 PBA Commissioner's Cup -- where they defeated TNT in six games. But plenty has changed since then: that team in 2019 still featured SMB's famed "Death Five" of June Mar Fajardo, Arwind Santos, Chris Ross, Marcio Lassiter, and Alex Cabagnot. Emerging as Finals MVP in that series was Terrence Romeo.
Santos and Cabagnot have since been traded, and Romeo has yet to play a single game for San Miguel in this conference. Fajardo, Ross, and Lassiter remain, but the Beermen have welcomed a slew of new stars including former Rookie of the Year CJ Perez, Simon Enciso and Jericho Cruz, as well as big men Vic Manuel and Rodney Brondial.
"Pinag-uusapan natin na few players 'yung natira dito from the teams na nanalo ng eight championships," SMB coach Leo Austria said after their Game 7 triumph. "Sabi ko, this is the time na dine-develop 'yung character ng players na galing ibang team."
"They don't know yet how to win a championship eh," he noted.
The new Beermen have proven themselves in the elimination rounds; Perez, acquired by SMB in February 2021, is among the contenders for Best Player of the Conference after a string of superb performances.
But Austria is quick to stress that the playoffs -- and the finals, especially -- are another beast entirely.
"We're able to make it to the top of the elimination round, we beat Meralco in seven games. That's one thing," he said. "I told them it's not finished yet, because in a tournament hindi nakikilala 'yung second place."
"So kailangan nila manalo ng championship for them to have a legacy," he added.
The likes of Fajardo, Lassiter and Ross have embellished their legacy many times over, with multiple championships to their name on top of individual awards. Fajardo had ensured that SMB will play in the finals as he torched Meralco for 29 points on just 18 shots along with 14 rebounds in Game 7. Lassiter got the ball rolling by scoring nine of his 16 points in the first quarter.
The challenge is on players like Perez, Manuel, Cruz and Enciso, who are seeking their championship breakthrough in the PBA.
"We explained it to them," said Austria. "This is an opportunity for them."
"That's why they are in our team because we believe in them. It's up to them to show kung bakit namin sila kinuha," he pointed out. "After all, 'yung mga players na ito ay gustong mag-champion eh."
"Kailangan ma-motivate pa rin sila ng importance of winning a championship. Kung second place ka, hindi ka maaalala ng mga tao eh."
Game 1 of the finals between San Miguel and TNT is on Sunday at the Araneta Coliseum.