As expected, the Alaska Aces and San Miguel Beermen (SMB) set another gripping encounter in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Finals, like last year. The two legendary pro teams met twice in the finals last season, where the Beermen won both championships. The Aces waited for this moment for a chance for redemption, and it looks like they will have the slight edge in this best-of-seven series.
But June Mar Fajardo’s unfortunate knee injury sustained in Game 6 of the semis versus Rain or Shine could be a game-changer. The reigning two-time PBA MVP appeared to have twisted his knee in a rebound play against Jireh Ibanez. Test results are not yet available as of this writing but many suspect Fajardo could be out of the series. His absence will definitely alter SMB’s game as most of its half-court sets are built around JuneMar. He leads the league in points (26 ppg), rebounds (14.8 rpg) and blocks (2.1 bpg). But the Beermen showed great resolve last Friday after Fajardo fell, and rallied from a double-digit deficit to prevent the Painters from forcing a rubber match. Curiously, it was Fajardo’s alternate center, Gabby Espinas, who sparked a huge third quarter blitz with post plays against college teammate Beau Belga.
This much anticipated rematch appears to be even-steven, with the stats showing very little difference in most departments. But here are some key factors to look at:
Offense. Alaska is PBA’s best in scoring, averaging 101 points. SMB is third with 98.6 ppg, or just 2.4 points less than the Aces. But the main disparity is in style. The Aces love to run, especially when Calvin Abueva, Vic Manuel, and the youth brigade of Jayvee Casio, Chris Banchero and RJ Jazul are on the floor. In contrast, the Beermen like to take advantage of size and talent advantage by going deliberate offense. Without Fajardo, their half court sets won’t be the same. But Coach Leo Austria will surely come up with modifications. It will be interesting to see the post battles. Espinas displayed his post skills last Friday. The former NCAA MVP has had success against a smaller defender like Manuel under the basket. Against a bigger defender like Sonny Thoss, he can face up and use his quickness to penetrate. But the same is true for Manuel and Thoss. They too can take advantage of mismatches at the post and have proven to be effective. SMB’s Yancy De Ocampo may get the chance to relive his glory days in the PBA with opportunities inside the paint. Yancy is long and highly skilled. The outside shooting could be a factor in the series but it doesn’t look like it favors any team. SMB makes 8.5 treys per game, while Alaska unloads 7.5. In terms of accuracy, Alaska is just 5% better.
Defense. Alaska gives up 91.9 ppg, while SMB 92.4 ppg. But for the Beermen, their transition defense will be put to the test as the Aces are expected to go up-tempo. In the unlikely event that Fajardo makes it to the series, post defense would be crucial for Alaska.
Bench. The bench always plays a crucial role in a long series. Again, the stats show very similar numbers, with the Beermen and Aces having bench points of 40.1 and 38 ppg respectively. Cyrus Baguio, Dondon Hontiveros and Tony Dela Cruz could be a factor for Alaska, having gone to so many finals battles in the past. But Chris Lutz, Chris Ross and Ryan Arana are also capable of playing big for the Beermen.
Coaching. Veteran tactician Austria is a proven winner. His crew obeys his commands knowing too well his tactical expertise. But Alex Compton has taken the PBA by storm by taking the Aces to greater heights since last year. And it looks like he is just getting started. Expect some surprise bombshells from both coaches in the finals.
Desire. The Aces will be fueled by the desire to avenge their two title losses to SMB last year. The Beermen will want to win this one for their wounded star Fajardo.
We can look forward to a thrilling series. But I feel the Aces will win it after seven games.