The quarterfinal round of the PBA Philippine Cup went quickly! The number 1 and 2 seeds, Talk 'N Text and San Mig Coffee, respectively, needing just one win over their opponents to advance, disposed of their challengers in similarly close games. The Tropang Texters, with eight players scoring at least 8 points, survived a challenge from the Niño Canaleta (25 points) and Mike Cortez (21 points, 18 assists, 9 rebounds)-led Air 21 Express, and snared the victory, 105-100. On the other side of the bracket, the Coffee Mixers had to go into overtime to beat the Petron Blaze Boosters, 92-87. San Mig withstood rookie June Mar Fajardo's monster game (22 points, 15 rebounds) to take control in the OT, led by the steady hand of Mark Barroca. Both series, thus, were one and done.
The two other series, both best-of-threes, turned out quite differently.
Alaska, led by Cyrus Baguio (26 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals) survived a late challenge by Meralco in their first game, to win 90-84, and beat the Bolts handily, 88-70, in the second game, to sweep the series, and surprised many in the process. I and many others whom I spoke with thought that series would be the most competitive. However, with stellar team play from Coach Luigi Trillo's wards, coupled with Meralco's poor shooting and inability to match the energy of the Aces, the outcome was inevitable, despite Sol Mercado's efforts.
Ginebra San Miguel got spanked in the first game of its series against Rain or Shine, losing 82-65 to the much more focused Elastopainters. The return of Paul Lee obviously uplifted Rain or Shine, which won despite ace gunner Jeff Chan's off night (just 1 point, but 4 rebounds and 5 assists). In typical fashion, however, Ginebra held itself together in a close Game 2, and rode on the energy of Rudy Hatfield (10 points, 9 rebounds) to eke out a victory, 79-77, and force a decider.
The lone Sunday game was close, as Ginebra and ROS were deadlocked at the half at 47-apiece. Suddenly, ROS broke out in the third quarter and unleashed a barrage of shots, which enabled them to lead by as much as 21 points, and Ginebra tried to catch up the rest of the way, came close, but fell short, losing 102-89. The main thorn on Ginebra's side? Paul Lee, who drilled clutch shots (25 points, 4 3-pointers) and provided stability at the point throughout the game.
The best-of-seven Semifinals match-ups will pit TNT versus Alaska, and San Mig versus Rain or Shine.
The first series is intriguing, since Alaska is back in the semis as an unpredictable team, obviously in an uphill battle against the Texters, who have, at times this Conference, seemed invincible. With such a deep lineup and a coach who has won many championships (Norman Black), it would not be unwise to place your wagers on TNT. Alaska, though, has been on the rise lately, after having a rollercoaster elimination round, but disposing of tough Meralco in two straight games. Depth and experience are surely in TNT's favor, but Alaska has some winners on its roster, fellows who have won titles at different levels, and veterans who know what it takes to win.
Talk 'N Text wants this to be a short series, since pesky Alaska has tons of energy and seems to get stronger along the way, and as the series progresses, the Aces' coaching staff has time to adjust, free-wheel (deviations from the triangle abound this Conference), and make the main players more comfortable. Alaska has shown it can beat TNT, and somehow usually raises its level of play versus the number one seed. The usual rebounding and inside muscle edge of TNT is something the Aces can negate, with players like Sonny Thoss, Gabby Espinas, Calvin Abueva, Marnel Baracael, and even Sam Eman.
Jayson Castro will the key for Talk 'N Text — nobody can keep up with The Blur and the guards of Alaska will be hard-pressed to stay with him, or to stay in the game, since they'll end up fouling if they try to hold him to keep in pace. JVee Casio and the other Alaska guards have to make Castro work on defense.
Can Alaska beat Talk 'N Text? Surely, it can be done. The Texters, however, are on a mission to get yet another Philippine Cup championship. They are focused, they are immensely talented, and they execute to perfection most of the time. At the very least, this series will be an end-to-end, quick-paced, exciting one, which should leave fans breathless every game.
The other match-up is very different. Rain or Shine had success against San Mig, which was still called B-Meg, in last season's third conference, where ROS beat B-Meg to win the crown. And while there may not be a Mel Cornley on the ROS squad this time, the Elastopainters have vastly improved as a team since then. Rookie Chris Tiu already declared his team deeper than San Mig's, and he may be right.
This time around, Paul Lee is healthy (he was injured in the Finals of last year's Third Conference) and playing at a high level (just ask Ginebra), and Jervy Cruz, a two-time Player of the Week this Conference, Ronnie Matias and Larry Rodriguez are gap-fillers who can play at any frontline position despite lacking height, and hold their own. Tiu adds a shooter, a playmaker, and a physical guard, who can combine with Jireh Ibanes and Ryan Araña to throw off opposing backcourts with some bump and grind. TY Tang is an able backup, and Gabe Norwood has continued the upswing since the Jones Cup victory in the off-season. Chan will get his touch back somewhere along the way, and Extra Rice, Inc., Beau Belga and JR Quiñahan, are always ready to mix it up.
San Mig, however, is likewise one of the deepest teams in the league. Just as they learned from their upset loss to Powerade in last year's Philippine Cup, they surely learned something from the way Rain or Shine beat them in the last year's Governors' Cup. The frontline of San Mig is big and formidable. The energy and hustle of Mark Pingris, who scores on putbacks and gets to the line, and the inside-outside combo on offense of Joe Devance, are the keys. Yancy de Ocampo has to play tough. Raffy Reavis has to guard the San Mig Basket. PJ Simon and James Yap have to score consistently, to prevent the guards of Rain or Shine from gambling, dropping down, and disturbing the San Mig frontliners.
These teams will run when they can, but this series will be more of a grind-it-out, slow it down, half-court game. The big guys will be the main protagonists. A crucial factor for San Mig is the absence of Jonas Villanueva, who is down with dengue fever. Can Mark Barroca play extended minutes and still excel? Who will run the show when he needs to rest or is in foul trouble?
Speaking of protagonists, Coach Tim Cone of San Mig and Coach Yeng Guiao of Rain or Shine will battle each other from the sidelines. The two veteran coaches will be picking each other's brains in an attempt to outdo each other. They'll be working the referees; they'll be saying things during the pre and post-game interviews to make the other think. They will draw aces and trump cards at certain points of each game, in an effort to outfox the other. For many, this will be the main attraction.
Certainly, this is a toss-up series. San Mig versus Rain or Shine will be physical, and will most likely go to six or seven games.
PBA Philippine Cup Final Four action starts on Wednesday, 19 December 2012. You wouldn't want to miss it.
You can follow Charlie Cuna on Twitter @Charlie C.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.