There seems to be a developing theme here with the two ongoing PBA Philippine Cup semifinal series: whatever you can do, I can do better.
Barely 24 hours after the Powerade Tigers pulled off a come-from-behind overtime win over the Rain or Shine Elastopainters behind the heroics of main man Gary David, the Petron Blaze Boosters came through with their own thrilling comeback, rallying from 20 points down to nip the Talk N' Text Tropang Texters, 95-93, behind a booming triple from Alex Cabagnot with only 12 seconds left.
Just like the Tigers, the Blaze Boosters have now won two in a row and have taken a 2-1 series lead. But it wasn't easy. TNT got off to a fast start and threatened to blow the game wide open, erecting a couple of 20-point spreads in the second period behind the hot shooting of Ranidel De Ocampo and Jimmy Alapag.
Maganda ang umpisa pero after tumaas intensity ng TNT nalamangan kami ng 20 points," Petron coach Ato Agustin said. "The reason why naiwan kami, sumabay kami sa tempo nila, iyong fast-paced, so niremind ko iyon sa mga bata ng halftime, patient tayo sa offense, huwag tayo magmadali."
Much of the early damage was inflicted by De Ocampo, who had struggled in the first two games of this series. The big, smooth forward had scored a total of 11 points in Games 1 and 2, but he matched that output in the first half alone. Meanwhile, Cabagnot was off to another horrendous start, going scoreless over the first 24 minutes. Luckily for Petron, Denok Miranda and Arwind Santos came alive late in the second period, spearheading a closing 10-0 run that cut TNT's lead to just 10 at the break.
Cabagnot, who also struggled in the first half of Game 1, which was also played at the Astrodome, didn't score his first bucket until 6:47 of the third, a drive that brought the Blaze Booster to within 56-51. It was part of a 13-5 Petron run that cut TNT's lead to just 61-58.
"We adjusted sa third," Agustin said. "Maganda simula ng third. Kami ang nag-dictate ng tempo tapos ni-level namin iyong intensity ng TNT."
The Tropang Texters, though, were still in command early in the fourth as Alapag took charge and scattered eight points to help stake TNT to an 89-77 lead. In a gutsy move, Agustin kept Cabagnot on the bench and went with a backcourt of Joseph Yeo and Miranda, forcing Chot Reyes to choose between a foul-plagued Ryan Reyes and a much smaller Alapag to guard Yeo at the two-spot.
The move paid off. After Danny Ildefonso and Miranda hit back-to-back baskets to cut the lead to eight, Yeo drove against Reyes and fished the latter's fifth foul. He made both free throws to bring Petron to within six. Chot put in Jayson Castro for Ryan, and switched Alapag to Yeo, creating the mismatch that Agustin had wanted. After TNT came up empty, Petron went to Yeo down low, and he posted up the much smaller Alapag for an easy bucket. The lead was now down to just four, 89-85.
Suddenly the Texters had become tentative on offense. No one could buy a bucket as their three-point shooting, which had served them well up to that point, deserted them. Meanwhile, Petron's running game was back, and Miranda sliced through the lane and hit a difficult left-handed runner to cut the lead to two. Moments later, TNT threw the ball away, and Yeo's fastbreak basket tied the game at 89.
By this time, you could sense that Petron had taken over the game, even though there were still over three minutes remaining. After TNT again failed to score, Santos gave the Blaze Boosters their first lead since early in the game with a baseline jumper that made it 91-89.
Kelly Williams's two free throws with 2:24 left tied it up at 91. These were TNT's first points since a Larry Fonacier triple with a little less than eight minutes left. In between, Petron had gone on a 14-0 run.
Neither team could seize the upper hand over the next few plays until Ali Peek was fouled with 46 seconds left. He split his free throws to give TNT back the lead, and after Miranda missed a lay-up, Peek was again sent to the line with a chance to extend their lead to three. But again, he split his free throws to make it 93-91, with only 25.4 seconds left in the game.
Chot Reyes once described Cabagnot as a clutch player, one who never misses game-winning shots. Knowing this, he instructed Ryan Reyes to stick with Cabagnot no matter what, and let someone else try to beat them.
The Blaze Boosters went to Santos, whose jumper was challenged well by Williams, forcing him to pass off to Ildefonso. The veteran big man had his back turned to the basket, so he easily saw Reyes coming over to double-team. He quickly threw the ball to Cabagnot, who did was he's always done, launching a back-breaking three that swished through the net and gave Petron a one-point lead.
"The last play was designed for Alex, [but it was supposed to be] a pick-and-roll," Agustin said. "Second option si Arwind."
"Coach designed the play," Cabagnot said, before adding with his trademark grin: "Naka-chamba ulit."
There were still 12.9 seconds left, though, more than enough time for TNT to set up a play and get a good look. They swung the ball around the perimeter and found Fonacier open at the corner. But wingman's triple was short, and the Texters were forced to foul Chris Lutz with only 2.6 ticks left.
The Fil-Am forward split his free throws, giving TNT one last chance to tie or win. In these situations, Alapag is usually the guy who takes the big shot since like Cabagnot he's such a clutch player. But Yeo smothered him, forcing him to pass off to De Ocampo, whose open look clanged off the back iron.
To say that Reyes was very upset after the game is an understatement. He was particularly peeved at Ryan Reyes for leaving his man Cabagnot to help on Ildefonso, who was in no position to score and didn't need to be double-teamed.
"My fault," Reyes said of allowing Cabagnot to steal the win. "I put Ryan in. Coaching error. He doesn't know what 'don't help' means.
"We allowed Denok to score 20 points. In the end, that was the story." Miranda had averaged only 3.5 points over the first two games of the series.
"They came back. We allowed them to come back. When you don't take care of business that's what happens. We're losing the series on mental lapses. There's no more room for that in Game 4. We have to win on Wednesday or we go home."