Now that the NBA season is over, basketball action shifts back to the local scene, with the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Finals kicking off this week, along with the Fil Oil Flying V pre-season tournament playoffs.
Let’s start with the PBA Commissioner’s Cup (All-Filipino) best-of-seven championship series between the San Miguel Beermen (SMB) and the Talk N’ Text (TNT) Ka Tropa, which starts on Wednesday. This should be a very interesting match-up between the banner teams of both the MVP (Manny V. Pangilinan) and San Miguel groups, two of the biggest basketball organizations in the country. I’m particularly excited for TNT head coach Nash Racela, a dear friend, who is entering his first-ever PBA finals as chief bench tactician. Nash owns basketball titles as head coach in the Universities Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) with Far Eastern University, and the now defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) with the Batangas Blades. But opposite him is another multi-titled hoops mentor in SMB’s Leo Austria, who holds four PBA titles, all with the Beermen.
Man-for-man, San Miguel appears to have the edge in this match-up, with so many All-Stars in its roster. Heading the list, of course, is three-time league MVP (Most Valuable Player) June Mar Fajardo, the 6’10” Cebuano behemoth who has dominated the PBA since he entered in 2012. Another former PBA MVP in the squad is the versatile Arwind Santos, who is still very much capable of making a huge impact in the finals. Who can forget Marcio Lassiter, perhaps the team’s best outside gunner, who sent SMB to the finals with that ridiculous buzzer-beating triple in Game 4 of the semis versus the Star Hotshots? Then there’s the league’s finest clutch gunner in Alex Cabagnot, who has saved the day several times for his squad with dagger shots. And of course, Chris Ross is at his finest during the finals, being the glue that holds the Beermen together. SMB has a formidable crew with a deep supporting cast. Add to the mix American import Charles Rhodes, a 6’8” power forward from Mississippi State.
Ka Tropa has a mixture of accomplished veterans and talented young cagers. Leading the pack is Jayson Castro, the four-time PBA Best Player of the Conference awardee and two-time PBA Finals MVP. The man called The Blur still has the moves that made him Asia’s best point guard not too long ago, evidenced by his 38-point career game in Game 4 of the recent semis against crowd darling Ginebra San Miguel. Expect other veteran stars like Ranidel De Ocampo, Kelly Williams, Ryan Reyes and Harvey Carey to go all out for another PBA title. But the younger members are out to prove themselves as well. Mo Tautuaa, Troy Rosario, RR Garcia, Roger Pogoy, Kris Rosales and Anthony Semerad make up TNT’s youth brigade that’s ready to engage the Beermen in an all-out cage battle.
But the chances of Ka Tropa depend highly on the status of 6’10” import Joshua Smith, who has been a monster this conference. The former Georgetown Hoya injured his foot in Game 3 of the semis, and played hurt in Game 4. It’s still uncertain if Smith can suit up for TNT in the finals, even as reserve import Mike Myers flew in town already. Smith would’ve been the answer to Fajardo’s inside presence.
The coaching match-up is likewise something to look forward to. Austria’s experience should give him the edge. But Racela is capable of coming up with hat tricks that could change the course of the series. Anyway, I can see the series going the distance, especially if Smith can play.
The Fil Oil Cup quarterfinals on Wednesday will feature eight top college teams hoping to rule the pre-season tournament. Lyceum and San Sebastian College start the hostilities with a slam bang match-up of NCAA Season 93 dark horses. Both the Pirates and Stags are up-tempo squads that thrive on the physical game. Jose Rizal U and Adamson tangle in the second match, which should be a fiery display of full-court pressing machines. Then, undefeated San Beda tests the much-improved University of the Philippines. In the main game, defending Fil Oil and UAAP champ La Salle takes on Group B leader Far Eastern U.