PBA's own sibling rivalry
For the first time since 2011, the Petron Blaze Boosters seem to have finally gotten past all the drama surrounding their team. The result is a place in the PBA Governors’ Cup Finals against sister team and old rivals San Mig Coffee.
This is no small feat, particularly for a rookie PBA coach in Gee Abanilla.
Fresh off a stint as coach of his alma mater, De La Salle University, Abanilla was promoted to lead the Boosters in lieu of popular ex-player Olsen Racela. As popular as Racela had been for his years of service to the San Miguel Beer/Petron franchise, it seemed he was overwhelmed by the head coaching job. It didn’t help matters that there were perceived rifts between Arwind Santos and Jay Washington, and former import Renaldo Balkman lost his mind when the team needed him.
Thus, after suffering an opening-day loss to Meralco, the Boosters proceeded to run roughshod over the competition powered by import Elijah Millsap, the brother of NBA veteran and new Atlanta Hawk power forward Paul Millsap.
By trading away Washington and Joseph Yeo, adding Millsap and burly Doug Kramer via trade, and shortening his rotation, Abanilla finally found the right combination to elevate Petron.
Finding the right mix
In the case of San Mig Coffee, stints in the Finals of tournaments have become the norm for them since Tim Cone was lured away from Alaska in 2012. This is already their third Finals appearance in just six conferences under Cone, and the Mixers won the 2012 Commissioner’s Cup as part of that journey.
San Mig Coffee started off this current Governors’ Cup on shaky ground due to big man Marc Pingris’ stint with the Gilas-Pilipinas quintet. Despite bringing back import Marqus Blakely, San Mig often looked out of sync with no clear leader emerging. Former MVP James Yap has been up and down all season long, although Cone refused to call out his superstar no matter the performance.
Recognizing the need for additional scoring punch, Cone traded for Barako Bull swingman Allein Maliksi, who began to earn his spot on the Mixers roster until suffering an ACL injury in the semis against Meralco. Before that though, the return of Pingris and the development in guards Alex Mallari and Mark Barroca somehow pushed San Mig up the standings, renewing acquaintances with Alaska before eliminating the Aces.
The best-of-five semifinals yielded intriguing matchups of Petron versus defending Governors’ Cup champions Rain or Shine in one bracket, while San Mig Coffee dueled first time semis participants Meralco on the other.
A decimated RoS lineup, who never seemed to be able to get Gilas players Jeff Chan, Gabe Norwood and Beau Belga in peak form, saw them eventually fold to Petron in four games.
For Meralco, even if import Mario West played through an injured shoulder, the return to form of Yap and Pingris plus the double-doubles put up by Blakely were simply too much to overcome.
Long before the San Miguel Corp. bought what was then Purefoods and is now San Mig Coffee, these two franchises had engaged in some heavyweight Finals battles. If you remember, after Ramon “El Presidente” Fernandez served as playing coach for Purefoods in their maiden campaign of 1988, he was traded for San Miguel Beer’s Abet Guidaben before the season ended. So many legendary names have played for these two franchises over the past 25 years that reads like a who’s who of PBA basketball.
From Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codinera, Jojo Lastimosa, Rey Evangelista, Dindo Pumaren, Glenn Capacio, Boy Cabahug, and others for Purefoods/San Mig Coffee to Fernandez, Hector Calma, Samboy Lim, Ricardo Brown, Allan Caidic, Ato Agustin, and their own superstars for San Miguel Beer/Petron. Star power and championships have decorated each of these franchise’s respective histories.
Eyes on the prize
The coaching match-up between wily veteran Cone and newcomer Abanilla should also prove intriguing as Cone has never been shy of employing several tricks that he’s learned over the course of two decades. Coach Gee was given the keys to the jewel of San Miguel Corp., and he now sits on the verge of duplicating what former Petron coach Ato Agustin accomplished two years back.
In the end though, it will probably all boil down to the players donning the jerseys and sneakers to settle who will win the season-ending tournament. Santos stands as the lone player among the active teams who can win the Most Valuable Player award. Fajardo recognizes that Alaska’s Calvin Abueva may have already built a significant lead in the Rookie of the Year tally, but that doesn’t mean the 6-foot-7 slotman isn’t going to try to impose his will on the Mixers.
Meanwhile, both Millsap and Blakely have reasonable arguments for the Best Import award, and their performance in these Finals will go a long way in determining who ends up champion.
Though both squads fall under the San Miguel umbrella, don’t expect either side to play nice when the opening jump happens on Friday.