And so it is down to two: Barangay Ginebra and Meralco will dispute the PBA Governors Cup Finals starting tomorrow, 7 October, at the Big Dome, in a Best 4-out of-7 series.
It took quite some doing for both teams to make it this far. Ginebra needed the full five games of their semis series to oust sister team San Miguel Beer. In their win-or-go-home Game 5, Ginebra leaned on rookie guard Scottie Thompson's 24 points (4/7 on triples) and 15 rebounds (yep, no typo, 15 rebounds from the 5-foot-11 guard) to rip San Miguel 117-92. It was fitting payback after the Beermen forced a Game 5 by shredding the Gin Kings in Game 4.
Meralco needed four games to also pull the rug out from their own sister team Talk N Text. Cliff Hodge, the jumping jack Fil-Am forward who has spent his entire career with the Bolts, electrified his side with 32 points (12/19 field goals overall, including three triples) to lead them to the 94-88 victory.
In both series, the "dehado" had turned back the "llamado".
Ginebra last won a PBA championship in 2008, when they had mighty 7-foot-1 import Chris Alexander leading the way. Fast and Furious backcourt mates Mark Caguioa and Jay Helterbrand were still very much living up to their monickers back then. They are still with the Gin Kings up to now, although more as elder statesmen. It has been three years since Ginebra was in the Finals, the last time around they bowed to the Alaska Aces.
Merlaco last won a major basketball championship before there was even a PBA to speak of, when the Reddy Kilowatts (as they were then known) won the old MICAA championship. This is the franchise's first trip to the PBA Finals in its modern incarnation.
What to watch out for in this Finale?
1. Two rookies who were teammates for a while in the PBA D League will now take on each other.
Chris Newsome, whose two in-traffic dunks during the critical waning minutes in Game 4 are still making the video and GIF rounds all over the five digital platforms, is showing everybody why he is widely considered to be (in the words of our very own Joescoundrel) the last genuinely elite player to come out of the Ateneo. Newsome, the 6-foot-2 high-flying guard, has emerged as a vital cog and a legitimate starter for the Bolts. Newsome is playing "like an extra import" in the words of long-time Ginebra fan Gener Crescini. "Parang may maliit na import ang Meralco, tiyak pahihirapan niya mga bata ko," Crescini said over (what else?) shots of Ginebra San Miguel and grilled pigs ears.
His fellow rookie Thompson, who has emerged as a legitimate starter himself, is quickly justifying the high pick Coach Tim Cone used to nab him in the recent draft. "He just needs to keep building his confidence, keep taking shots, even if they aren't falling," said Ginebra veteran LA Tenorio. "Sinabi ko nga sa kanya, kahit tumira siya ng 50, kahit sumala siya ng 40, just keep shooting, kasi 'yun ang binibigay ng depensa," Tenorio added. Turns out that was advice well-given, and well-taken.
"A lot of people probably don't know that Scottie and I were teammates with Hapee in the D League," Newsome said in one interview. "I'm happy he's doing well, and it'll be fun and a challenge to go up against him in the Finals."
If they wind up as each other's match-up, Newsome will enjoy a tremendous edge in athleticism and strength, as those two Game 4 dunks showed. Thompson however has proven to be as brilliant an all-around player in the pros now as he was when he was the MVP of the NCAA. Thompson's versatility should allow him to neutralize somewhat the physical advantages of Newsome.
2. Size versus size.
6-foot-9 Japheth Aguilar, 6-foot-6 Joe De Vance, 6-foot-5 David Marcelo have more than held the fort up front for Ginebra in the absence of 7-foot Greg Slaughter. Slaughter was lost to injury this conference and is expected to miss another few months. Aguilar possesses arguably the best combination of size and athleticism in the entire league. He is still easily pinballed in the lane though, because he's such as long and lanky presence. But few big men have the range, running, and hops of Aguilar, and he is also averaging a little over two blocks per game. De Vance and Marcelo have provided solid support for Aguilar at both the 4 and 5 spots.
Meralco relies on 6-foot-6 Kelly Nabong, 6-foot-4 veteran Reynel Hugnatan, 6-foot-5 Bryan Faundo, 6-foot-4 Jared Dillinger, and the 6-foot-3 Hodge up front. Meralco has nowhere near the size of Ginebra up front, unless they can get something from two former UAAP MVP's whose careers have not been as illustrious in the PBA thus far: 6-foot-5 Ken Bono, and 6-foot-7 Rabeh Al-Hussaini. Al-Hussaini was the cornerstone upon which Black built his 5-Peat title reign with the Ateneo in the UAAP, but hasn't seen much action lately.
8. Cafe France channels their inner Blackwater to beat NLEX. Cafe France, a team made up mostly of the core of the Centro Escolar University Scorpions of NAASCU, became only the second team in the last six years to beat mighty NLEX for the PBA D League championship. 6-foot-5 import Rodrigue Ebondo of Cameroon made the buzzer-beating title-clinching basket in the winner-take-all Game 3 of the Foundation Cup conference. "Ibigay ko daw sa kanya ang bola at siya na gagawa, so binigay namin sa kanya at nag-deliver siya," exclaimed Coach Egay Macaraya. NLEX has been mostly the resident champion of the D League with their always-loaded lineup. This Foundation Cup lineup was made up of the core of NCAA Dynasts San Beda. However, they had to make do without their San Beda stars in this game, as the Red Lions had to focus on the NCAA season that already opened at around this same time. They still had a formidable roster though, with eventual PBA first round draftees Troy Rosario, Chris Newsome, and Scottie Thompson leading the way. But it just was not enough to overcome the tough Bakers who were hungry for their first ever D League crown.
9. There were some question marks in the PBA Draft. This does not pertain only to Talk N Text somehow winding up getting the top two picks - 6-foot-7 Tongan-born Mo Tautuaa, and 6-foot-7 Gilas Pool mainstay Troy Rosario - but also to some picks that just seemed not to make all that much sense. For example, how did Roi Sumang wind up all the way down into the third round? Many draft projections had him going as early as the second half of the first round. Sumang was an outstanding amateur who looked PBA-ready, yet GlobalPort still saw him available all the way down to the third round. To their credit the Batang Pier did grab him right away, and even made him the first draftee signed up by the club that picked him. "Nung nakita namin na andun pa si Roi kinuha na namin talaga, nagtaka pa nga kami bakit andun siya," said Coach Pido Jarencio after drafting Sumang. Then Letran star Mark Cruz, Don Trollano, Simon Enciso, Abel Galliguez, Bradwyn Guinto all also wound up going into later rounds. One long-time TV Panel guy perhaps summed it up best when he admitted on air, "I don't really know Don Trollano." Quite an admission considering he also covers the D League, where Trollano was an off again-on again Best Player of the Game. My money is on these guys besting at least three players taken in the first round over their respective careers.
10. Steve Kerr and the Lacobs and make Stef Curry and Golden State NBA Champions. His draft appraisal has always been a constant source of inspiration for Stef Curry. The remarks in it, in fairness, were pretty accurate for him coming out of college: too small to be an NBA 2-guard, can't really play the point, not strong enough, not athletic enough, just a shooter. Lo and behold whoever put that together must still be getting it from all of his buddies, if not the entire scouting fraternity. But that is just making another Kerr story to add to his growing legend. If it wasn't for Golden State team owners the Lacob Brothers, and Steven Kerr, at the time a rookie coach, maybe Curry would still be just another flashy shooter type. The Lacobs put together the team that would turn the NBA on its ear, and make Curry the best player on the planet. Making it all work together is the genius that is Kerr. Who would have thought that guys like Draymond Green, Mo Speights, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, and Andre Igoudala would ever form the core of a championship team? All of them were the prototypes for players who would forever be "missing something" that would make them just role players or journeymen all their lives. Turns out they were all long, athletic, tempo-pushing types that could beat anybody at any time. Now they are NBA champions, Curry the MVP, and they look set to make it a back-to-back title romp sooner rather than later.
11. The death of the big name high school superstar. Quick (and no Googling), name the last UAAP, NCAA, or Tiong Lian MVP who became both MVP and champion at least once during his college career. I'll make it a little easier: even if it was not necessarily the same year. Now I'll make it a little harder: who was the last UAAP, NCAA, or Tiong Lian MVP and champion, who also became a UAAP or NCAA MVP and champion, who also became a PBA MVP and champion? If the answer to this last question is a player who has been in the PBA for more than 10 years, I guess it is safe to say the big name high school superstar has really been dead for the longest time. Some might argue that Terrence Romeo is the closest thing, and he is relatively young. However I cannot take him into consideration because 1) He never won a UAAP senior division championship, and 2) He has yet to become a PBA champion or MVP, so he really is not even close.
12. The truly talented Fil-Am players chose not to come
When this was a column and not a blog it used to be called The Morning After. Now that it is the middle of January it might as well be called the year after. And in truth the year 2015 was quite a year for basketball, not just here but everywhere else. Here are my best memories of basketball for 2015, in no particular order, just listed down as I recall them:
1. Junemar Fajardo finally emerges as the best damn PBA player ever. He led San Miguel Beer to two out of the three conference championships at stake last PBA season. He is without a doubt the best player in the league. He has the size and strength advantage over everyone except Greg Slaughter, but is a much more instinctive player; the game just comes so naturally to him. Fajardo will compile the numbers, the individual accolades, the championships, and hopefully the international titles that will eventually make him the greatest PBA player ever.
2. The San Miguel Group decides not to join the National Team. Well, except for Marc Pingris, and even that was perhaps due to the fact that he was the least superstar-y of the players the Samahang Basketbol Ng Pilipinas wanted for Gilas 3.0. Fajardo, Slaughter, Marcio Lassiter, LA Tenorio, Japheth Aguilar all were simply not made available for Gilas 3.0, whether or not that really was SMC Management's call or not, perhaps only Al Chua will really ever know. In truth not all of them were needed. But the ones who were - Fajardo (backup at 4 and 5 to the naturalized Andray Blatche), Lassiter (arguably the best game-time shooter now in the country), Aguilar (FIBA-level size and atlheticism at the 3, 4, 5) really could have made a huge difference in FIBA competition. The basketball public just plain hammered the SMC Group for this decision.
3. Gilas 3.0 gets royally screwed by the Chinese in the FIBA Asia Finals. Seriously, no one who knows the game, or even those who only casually follow the game, all said the same thing: Chine, as strong as they already were, still decided to pull a fast one on the Philippines during the FIBA Asia Finals. Jayson Castro's inexplicable travel while he was STILL DRIBBLING was only the highlight. Throughout the entire championship game, the officiating was all about making absolutely sure that China would make a return trip to Olympic Basketball. We should've known. They already pulled the same thing against Iran in the semis. Still, a silver medal finish with a team that was less than ideal, and heavily derided, isn't bad at all.
4. Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva get some unequivocal love from the fans thanks to their Gilas 3.0 stint. Abueva probably said it best, "Ngayon lang ako nakaranas na buong Pilipinas sinusuportahan ako, ganito pala feeling." When The Beast made the cut and was named to Gilas 3.0 many fans were wondering how the barely 6-foot-2 forward would fare against the giants of international play at his position. Turns out he either stayed toe to toe with them or best them using the same things he uses that infuriate non-Alaska fans: toughness (ok, gulang, and even good old fashioned pananalbahe), a nonstop motor, that extra gear, and his all-out relentlessness on both ends of the court. Romeo on the other hand could not have picked a better time to dye his hair. He put so many veteran international players on skates. He shot over guys that supposedly would finally be big enough, athletic enough, and tough enough to cover him, and that he would never get away with what he gets away with at home. Yeah, right. I was never a fan of either of these guys for purely non-basketball reasons. But as a basketball fan, c'mon people, these guys had a heck of a coming out party with Gilas 3.0.
5. Letran pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent college basketball memory, wresting the crown from San Beda. How on earth a team that small, without an import, could have made the run that they did, still amazes fans to this day. When last season's NCAA Finals match-up turned out to be San Beda-Letran, everybody and his brother just knew that this would be another cakewalk for the Red Lions, all the way to their sixth straight NCAA championship, and ninth in the last ten trips to the NCAA Finals. Lo and behold, the Knights played their own version of small ball and show-mismatch all the way to the title. Too bad the coach that led them here then signed up with Lasalle just a few weeks after.
6. FEU ends its own 10-year title drought by taking home the UAAP championship. Just like Letran in the NCAA, the Tamaraws last had a championship in 2005. Unlike the Knights however, the Tams were simply overwhelming last season. There were games they seemed to simply be on cruise control, toying with opponents they knew they could easily take, and literally taking them to school. Their comebacks never had that feeling of dread in them at all. It just seemed inevitable that regardless how big the deficit
Hapee is a brand long associated with amateur basketball. It was among the later stalwarts of the now-defunct Philippine Basketball Leage. They joined the PBA D leage last conference, basically taking over the multi-titled NLEX franchise made up of the core of NCAA Dynasts San Beda. As expected they won the championship against the hardfighting Cagayan franchise to usher in a successful return to amateur basketball.
Unfortunately things are not going quite so well for the Fresh Fighters in the current PBA D League Foundation Cup.
At 3-3 they're fifth in the 10-team standings. They needed an overtime to beat Cafe France in their last game at the San Juan Arena. 6'8" San Beda import Ola ADeogun tossed in an awkward miss by Troy Rosario with only 3/10 of a second remaing in regular time 63-63, sending that game into overtime.
Prior to that, Maverick Ahanmisi, a US NCAA Division 1 product, looked like he had sealed the win for the Bakers, nailing back-to-back three-pointers to push Cafe France to a 61-53 spread with a little over three minutes to go. Ahanmisi wound up with a superb all-around game with 16 points (three treys), seven rebounds, and six assists to lead the Bakers. His speed and strength clearly rattled fellow Filipino-American ballers Ray Parks, the two-time UAAP MVP, and Chris Newsome, the two guys tasked to match up with him.
Parks and Newsome are both highly athletic and talented UAAP stars, but clearly the US NCAA Division 1 product was indeed on a higher basketball plane, at least in this game. Ahanmisi ran hard in transition and the early offense, and hit the outside jumper either off his own dribble or off passes on the drive-draw.
Hapee had already lost to Jumbo and Keramix, two teams that, on paper, should not have been able to stand toe to toe with the Fresh Fighters, much less beat them. They also got blown off the floor by their first Finals rival, Cagayan. Granted Hapee was without Adeogun and the five other San Beda stalwarts prior to this game. The Red Lions arrived right in time. Had Hapee lost this game they would have gone down to 2-4, precarious with only four games remaining on their schedule.
Another San Beda stalwart, 6'4" forward Arthur De La Cruz, was named best player in this overtime victory with 18 points and 10 rebounds. "We just want to help our team win," De La Cruz said in one post-game interview. Help is needed plenty from the way Hapee was going before this game.
Comes now the question: Even without the San Beda players onboard, Hapee still had plenty of talent. Rosario, Parks, Newsome, have former Ateneo standout Kirk Long, reigning NCAA MVP Scottie Thompson, former JRU star Marvin Hayes, and quality reinforcements in former St Benilde gunner Mark Romero, and banger Tonton Bringas, as teammates. So how could they have started off at 2-3? Just with that roster, shouldn't it have been a 5-0 start for Hapee?
Let's do a little deeper digging:
1) Parks cannot do it all by himself. Parks was also last conference's MVP. His talent is without question. But his ability to literally carry a team on his own shoulders remains in doubt. He never won a UAAP championship with National University for example. Ironically NU won that elusive championship after Parks left. Everyone from coaches, to teammates, to the TV Panel guys, all seem to think Parks is this unstoppable one-man gang. His record so far suggests he is not.
2) Troy Roasrio needs to have a strong all-star center beside him. Rosario just came off a championship with NU in the UAAP, where he spent four years trying to get better. At a legit 6'6", with long limbs and strong springs, he looks like the Top 3 PBA Draft Pick everyone expects he will be. As in the case of Parks there is no doubting Rosario's talent. Unfortunately, Rosario needs to be paired with another good big man to be effective. He isn't one of those franchise cornerstone types who will do well on his own. In the NU championship run in the UAAP he had arguably the best import in the league in 6'6" Alfred Aroga. Before that he had another top import in 6'6" Jean Mbe.
3) Isolation plays and pounding the low post are no longer the only keys to success. Having Parks and Rosario on the roster makes it tempting to think just giving them the ball and letting them operate will ensure win after win after win. That is precisely what Hapee has done throughout their first five games. That is not really surprising though considering that...
4) Keeping a supporting cast strictly as a supporting cast makes teams predictable. That however presupposes that the supporting cast can also deliver, and this suporting cast can deliver, IF they get the chance. Thompson, the NCAA MVP, gets the ball a lot with Perpetual Help, which allowed him to pile on the stats that made him MVP. On this team that
It has been about a half-decade now since the PBA D League got going. That D in its name stands for "Developmental". Looking back on the five short years it has been around though, development seems to just be a nasty rumor for the league.
When the idea for the D League first came around it was a product of the times. The old Philippine Basketball League (PBL) had played out its last tournament in late 2009, and a vacuum was created in that "bridge stage" for college / varsity / commercial league players before they took their crack at the PBA. In that last PBL hurrah, Excel Roof, featuring the core of the then-NCAA champion San Sebastian Golden Stags under Ato Agustin, won the crown. It was a truly golden year for those Stags.
Many of those same San Sebastian players would go on to play for the NLEX Road Warriors, who have won all but one D League championship since the league began.
It has been asked before by Gameface: where is the D in all this?
After all these years the answer is clear: the D is not what you think it stands for.
Let's hear from PBA (and by extension PBA D League) Commissioner Chito Salud: "When we started this (D League) five years ago, we allowed direct hires, because the league itself is not yet established," he explained in one interview about a month and a half ago over a brouhaha related to the first-ever D League draft which we will get to shortly. "We want to establish the league first," he added.
In the aftermath of that inaugural rookie draft, three draft picks wound up going to teams different from the teams that drafted them.
Chris Newsome, the Ateneo star swingman, was drafted by Tanduay Light, but wound up signing with Hapee, apparently because Tanduay Light failed to get him to sign a tender offer within a five-day period after the draft. That made Newsome a free agent under D League rules. That then allowed him to sign with Hapee.
As expected, Tanduay Light head coach Lawrence Chongson just plain went ballistic, going on a weeks-long media rant about the uselessness of the draft, and how the D League seemed to be "rigged" in favor of the bigger-spending teams. "Taguan ka lang ng player for five days papano na?" Chongson lamented in one interview.
We will not get into the he said-she said exchange that then ensued between Chongson and Newsome's agent Charlie Dy. Suffice it to say, Chongson was summoned by Salud, they talked about the whole Newsome situation, and Chongson got hit with a one-game suspension coupled with a bright and shiny P150,000 fine.
One other player decided he was not going to play for Tanduay Light in the ongoing Aspirants Cup, FEU star Mac Belo. Belo for his part claims he told Tanduay management as early as the last D League conference that if his school fields a team he will play for his school team. FEU did field a D League team this conference, carrying the MJM Builders banner. Belo dutifully joined MJM-FEU.
Chongson went after Belo too, threatening to take legal action since Belo apparently had a live contract with Tanduay. After his meeting with Salud, the Belo affair was dropped and forgotten as well.
Two more draftees wound up in effect getting 'traded" for each other. Lasalle center Arnold Van Opstal was picked third by Cafe France. Fil-Am guard Maverick Ahanmisi was taken ninth by Hapee. Van Opstal eventually signed with Hapee. Ahanmisi wound up with Cafe France. Since draft picks cannot be traded under D League rules, one can only assume both players just allowed the five-day period to expire, with their drafting teams not moving either. As free agents they signed with the teams that wanted them. It seems strange though that a team would trade a third pick for a ninth pick, especially if that third pick is a 6-foot-8 center coveted by almost every team.
So it turns out all of Chongson's laments were not unfounded after all. It seems the draft didn't really improve the lot of teams that were really looking to build on it. Newsome and Van Opstal join a powerhouse Hapee squad that features 6-foot-8 Nigerian Ola Adeogun, 6-foot-7 NU star Troy Rosario, two-time UAAP MVP Ray Parks, and veteran D LEague star Garvo Lanete and Kirk Long. Considering Long and Adeogun will never see PBA action unless they are taken in as imports, it seems Hapee needs little to no development.
One can only surmise therefore that the development here is not for individual players, or even for fledgling teams. Development here is for the league itself. It looks like the D League is being developed in its entirety as a league. Salud's own words all but confirm that.
The PBA is apparently looking to establish and develop the D League into a legit farm league, much like the NBA D League after which it is somewhat patterned. That it has 12 teams now, in