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Sam Miguel

Returning, Debuting

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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.

If Aguilar will have a breakout series (and he's been long overdue for one) there is no one on the Meralco side that can match him. Meralco however can try and outrun Ginebra with the motored up Hodge leading the way. Merlaco however will surely miss Dillinger, who injured himself in Game 3 of their semis against TNT and did not play in Game 4.

3. Backcourt versus backcourt.

Tenorio, Thompson, and Sol Mercado have all come alive in this conference when head coach Tim Cone decided to abandon his beloved Triangle at least for now, and go to a more up-tempo, push-the-ball type of game. Mercado in particular, even more so than Thompson, has revived his game and seems to have rekindled a young player's love with basketball. Mercado is averaging nearly twice as many points this conference than his previous averages, thanks to being able to get out and run more. "In Game 5 I told Scottie we're being counted on, so lets just shoot the ball with confidence," he said in one interview.

Speaking of rejuvenated backcourts, Jimmy Alapag, who un-retired to suit up for the Bolts, seems to have discovered the fountain of youth. He was in every critical juncture of their semis against the Ka Tropa. He is joined by Baser Amer, Newsome, and Anjo Caram. Newsome helps kind of balance the scales here, although Ginebra's guard troika maintains an edge.

4. Cone versus Black

Everybody already knows the resumes of these two legendary coaches already.

Everybody know that they both preach defense-first, quick ball movement, sharing the ball, and getting the rebounds.

Everybody knows they've been to the Big Dance enough to know that it takes more than the X and O to win it all.

Suffice it to say, this will be perhaps the best real-time, real-game clinic on professional coaching anybody has ever seen in a long while. When two guys who have both completed grand slams meet in the Finals, you better believe this is going to be ever armchair coach's dream series.

5. Import versus import.

Justin Brownlee and Allen Durham have proven to be excellent imports. Brownlee came in as an unheralded replacement for Paul Harris, when Harris injured his hand early in the tournament. Brownlee was thought to just be holding the fort until Harris could return. Lo and behold, Brownlee is still here, and he has led Ginebra into the Finals with his hot outside shooting and brilliant all-around game.

Durham is a returnee import, having previously seen action with Barako Bull. Durham is a much stronger inside presence than Brownlee, and is also much better built, exactly the kind of powerful inside operator with just the right touch from about 17 or 18 feet that Black loves.

Brownlee has proven to be quite a revelation, as his scoring outbursts from the perimeter have helped keep Ginebra out of trouble. Durham for his part has proven to be the inside presence and board crasher that Meralco needs, cleaning up after his teammates' misses and also filling the lanes in transition.

In an import conference, your chances of winning are directly gauged with your import's performance. Whoever gets the better of the other here has already won half the battle for his side.

Fearless forecast: Ginebra in five games. If it goes to six or seven, Meralco wins it.
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