So the San Miguel Beermen made history by being the first team in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) to rebound from being down 0-3 in a best-of-seven finals and win the title. For many, it’s nothing short of a miracle (or “beeracle” as some fondly call it) to win four straight games over a dogged and spunky Alaska Aces side. Before the series started, I predicted an Alaska victory in seven games. And when the Aces swept the first three, I thought, okay I was wrong about the number of games. But like a phoenix from its ashes, San Miguel slowly sprung back into contention, forced a Game 7, and copped its 22nd PBA crown. So I was right about the number of games after all, but dead wrong about the victor.
May I say however that I made the prediction with the belief that June Mar Fajardo would not suit up in the finals following a knee injury in the semis. The 6’10” two-time MVP was suspected of having sustained a partial tear on his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) after tests were done just before the championship series. And even if he managed to play later on in the finals, would he have been 100%? Both Alaska and San Miguel were talent-laden and well coached. We all agreed it was going to be a tight title match. But a Fajardo-less Beermen would be at a slight disadvantage, I thought. With June Mar healthy however, I would have picked San Miguel to grab the crown in six games.
Without the Cebuano mammoth, the Beermen bowed to the Aces in the first three games – 91-100, 80-83, and 75-82. In Game 4, even sans Fajardo, they managed to survive Alaska in overtime, 110-104. It could have been all over in Game 4 but the breaks of the game did not go the Aces’ way. But anyway, they were still ahead in the finals, 3-1.
Enter Fajardo in Game 5. I don’t know if this caught Alaska by surprise. Knowing Alex Compton however, I believe the Aces were prepared with a game plan in case the Kraken returned. But Fajardo is such an imposing presence on the floor that he totally changes the complexion of the game. He played for just over 16 minutes in Game 5 but tallied 13 points and four boards. But with Arwind Santos finally getting his rhythm and exploding for 22 markers, the Beermen again escaped with an 86-73 overtime victory to live to fight another day.
Game 6 was like a make-or-break for both teams. Of course, if San Miguel lost, it would have been curtains for them. But if Alaska fell, everybody thought the Beermen would have the momentum in Game 7, and the Aces’ morale would have been crashed. June Mar got extended minutes in Game 6 – a little over 22 minutes. This was enough for him to post numbers that later on helped Fajardo notch his fourth Best Player of the Conference plum. He finished with 16 points on an incredible 46% shooting clip, and seven rebounds. More importantly, with him operating inside, it opened up scoring opportunities for the other Beermen, especially Marcio Lassiter (26 points, including 4-of-6 from the arc) and Yancy De Ocampo (14 points). San Miguel tied the series at 3-3 with a 100-89 triumph.
In the concluding encounter, we expected an all-out war as both camps had sinewy reasons to go for broke. The Aces wanted to wake up from the nightmare and finally extract that one win to give Compton his first PBA diadem as a coach. The Beermen wanted to make history by completing a sweep of the last four games.
But the story of Game 7 was about Fajardo again. 21 points and 15 boards in almost 30 minutes from him were enough for the Beermen to hack out the 96-89 clincher of the Philippine Cup title. Yes, Chris Ross, the eventual Finals MVP, delivered the killer blows with 21 markers that included four treys. Lassiter added 15. But Fajardo drew the focus of the defense.
June Mar was the game changer in the series. He is now, without a doubt, the best player in the land.