Tonight will be the deciding game in the highly entertaining and suspenseful Talk N’ Text (TNT) Ka Tropa – San Miguel Beermen (SMB) semifinal series of the 2017 Oppo Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Philippine Cup at the Mall of Asia Arena. The Beermen forced a Game 7 after a masterful 104-88 conquest of Ka Tropa last Saturday. SMB, with prize center and current best local player in the land June Mar Fajardo, is chasing a third straight PBA All-Filipino crown. TNT, under new head coach Nash Racela, hopes to make its 17th PBA finals appearance with a victory tonight.
The TNT-SMB best-of-seven semis series has been such a cliffhanger to the surprise of many, especially when the Texters got the 3-2 lead after Game 5. SMB finished the elimination round on top with a 10-1 win-loss card, while TNT was at fourth spot with 6-5. The Beermen, with the 6’10” beast Fajardo leading the charge, dominated the last two Philippine Cup tournaments. Very few thought TNT could measure swords with SMB in this conference.
But Racela, along with his time-tested winning crew of Jayson Castro, Ranidel De Ocampo (RDO), Kelly Williams, Ryan Reyes and Larry Fonacier, and backed up by a young and energetic squad led by Troy Rosario, Matt Ganuelas-Rosser and Moala Tautuaa, has other things in mind.
SMB will still have the slight edge in tonight’s do-or-die match. But TNT has already proven it can beat the Beermen, three times at that.
I believe there are five main keys to victory in tonight’s Game 7:
Defense. In this series, the team that limits its opponent to below 95 points is likely to win. TNT won Games 2, 3 and 5 with the following scores – 87-85, 98-92 and 101-94 respectively. SMB took Games 1, 4 and 6 with the following scores – 111-98, 97-86 and 104-88 respectively. Both coaches Racela and Leo Austria have prepared excellent defensive plans throughout the series. Ka Tropa has been aggressive with its defense, often looking for opportunities to trap, especially the pick and roll, and forcing several turnovers. This relentless pressure ploy also often leads to TNT’s up-tempo offensive game. On the other hand, the Beermen has been successful as well in slowing down TNT’s dribble drive motion, especially with the towering Fajardo manning the paint. The more successful defensive execution should decide the winner tonight.
Starters’ Game. In a Game 7, the main players usually come out and play. If Fajardo gets his usual 20-20 (points-rebounds) game, and gets enough support from Arwind Santos, Marcio Lassiter, Alex Cabagnot, Chris Ross, RR Garcia, Ronald Tubid and Gabby Espinas like in Game 6, SMB will be tough to dethrone. Castro sustained a leg injury in Game 6 and nobody’s sure if he’s 100% going into tonight’s game. He’s the heart of this team and it usually goes where he goes. But if the Blur gets his game going, it will energize the entire TNT nation and catapult the Texters to the finals. RDO, Reyes, Williams, Rosario, Tautuaa, Fonacier, Rosser and even veterans like Harvey Carey and Danny Seigle will need to bring their A-game against SMB.
Bench. In the series, the team that gets more contribution from its bench ups its chances of winning. TNT makes superb use of its bench, which contributes 40 points per game as opposed to SMB’s 19.2. With Rosario back in Game 7, this will extend Racela’s rotation to sustain Ka Tropa’s running game.
Pace. The fast-paced game clearly favors TNT. In a quick transition battle, Fajardo’s effectiveness is limited. This is why the Texters pressure and double team a lot, and run at every opportunity. In Game 6 however, SMB was able to stymie TNT’s tempo, and force a more deliberate contest.
Element of surprise. Both Racela and Austria are brilliant coaches. The latter is a proven champion coach with tons of experience in playoff games. But the younger Racela is a student of the game, constantly polishing his craft. Tonight, we can expect both coaches to unleash a surprise tactic that might just do the trick.
But other than the technical aspect, it’s really the desire to win that will make the biggest difference tonight. Who wants it more?