Ginebra's Mark Caguioa drives to the basket against San Mig Coffee's Justin Melton. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
It’s been said so many times over the years, but it really is true -- there are no two better words in sports than GAME SEVEN.
After battling it out in six epic contests in the PLDT Home myDSL Philippine Cup semifinals, archrivals Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and San Mig Coffee Mixers have come down to this. Only one squad will earn the right to challenge Rain or Shine in the Finals.
Reshaping the Barangay
From the start of the Philippine Cup, the retooled Ginebra squad looked like a team on a mission. With Ato Agustin fully entrenched as head coach, the crowd darlings drafted two-time UAAP Champion Greg Slaughter out of the Ateneo de Manila and the 7-footer was expected to shore up this team’s glaring hole in the middle. What few expected was that Slaughter’s presence would do wonders for the game of journeyman Japeth Aguilar.
A former No. 1 draft pick himself in 2009, Aguilar had largely been seen as an underperforming, overrated disappointment who refused to bang bodies and shunned the PBA at a failed attempt to land an NBA roster spot.
After spending most of last season with Globalport, Aguilar was traded to Ginebra, one of his father Peter’s old teams when he was a PBA cager.
Slaughter manning the middle and LA Tenorio controlling ball distribution meant Aguilar was free to roam on the wings, take long range jumpers even beyond the three-point arc and block shots from the blind side.
These moves, in addition to reinvigorated play from Mark Caguioa and the emergence of Mac Baracael, Chris Ellis, and the suddenly deep Ginebra bench, had their legions of fans dreaming of their first PBA title since the 2008 PBA Fiesta Conference. They nearly blew a twice-to-beat advantage against hard-charging Alaska Aces team before eventually ending Alaska’s Philippine Cup campaign.
The steady hand of Cone
In contrast, San Mig Coffee has seemingly been in the Finals almost every tournament they participate in. Since Tim Cone’s arrival as head coach in 2012, the former BMEG squad has been a strong contender, padding Cone’s championship resume as he tied the legendary Baby Dalupan with 15 PBA championships.
This Philippine Cup, the Mixers started with a dismal 1-5 win-loss card, sending alarms that perhaps the drafting of Ian Sangalang behind Slaughter was a mistake and that James Yap was washed up. But ever the master tactician, Cone and crew slowly climbed out of their hole and went on a hot streak.
Not coincidentally, it was the rise of playmaker Mark Barroca as a clutch shooter and the steady defense of Marc Pingris that gave San Mig Coffee the energy boost to rise to the fifth seed entering the quarterfinals. After sending the three-time defending Philippine Cup champions Talk ‘N Text packing, the stage was set for a showdown with the long-time rivals from the barangay.
The contrast in styles of each quintet has been on display for all of these six games. The precision of San Mig Coffee’s triangle versus the free-wheeling Barangay Ginebra system. The gigantic height of Slaughter and Aguilar versus the diminutive energizers in Barroca and Justin Melton.
Tenorio, an MVP candidate last season, has mostly sacrificed his offense to give Slaughter, Aguilar, Caguioa and his other teammates their baskets. But “The Lieutenant” hasn’t been free of criticism either because of overdribbling until the shot clock almost runs out, bad drives that lead to careless passes, and the two costly mistakes in Game 5 (a botched drive followed by a layup attempt when his team needed a triple) that put Ginebra on the brink of elimination.
For Yap, his back that was infamously bothering him all of last season had gotten better, but this time, it was a bad right elbow that was dragging his game down. At times, it seemed like the former two-time MVP had ceded leadership of this squad to the gritty Pingris or the speedy Barroca.
Yet during the final moments of that same Game 5, it was Yap that Cone tasked to shoot the big three-pointer, and he delivered. In Game 6, looking to dump Ginebra and book another Finals appearance, it was a phantom foul called on Yap when he and Caguioa were engaged in a rebound play that ultimately sealed the game.
In a series that has had blowouts, gamewinners, bad calls, rumors of “benta,” coaches clashing and old rivalries rekindled, it is perhaps fitting that it will be settled in a winner-take-all Game 7. There is no better venue to hold this than the historic Araneta Coliseum, the undisputed Mecca of Philippine basketball that has seen so many grand events in its near-four decades of existence.
When this day is done, one team will advance to meet the well-rested Rain or Shine Elasto Painters of Coach Yeng Guiao in the Philippine Cup Finals. The other? They will be left wondering where they went wrong and what they could have done differently. And people wonder why Filipinos love basketball so much.