Grand Slam II: Not a far-fetched dream for SMB

Inquirer Libre - Davao - - PANGUNAHING PAHINA - By Musong R. Castillo @musongINQ

WHO’S afraid of the San Miguel Beermen? Everybody, it seems. And get this, there are signs the swashbuckling Beermen have yet to hit perfect form.

Playing like a well-oiled machine in their first five games in the PBA Governors’ Cup, San Miguel has displayed improved chemistry, bristling with the confidence of a team ready to put away the second jewel of a possible second Triple Crown for the franchise.

In every practical sense, the Beermen have buried the memories of the prolific but volatile import who let them down in the same conference last year.

Already the champions of the Philippine Cup, the Beermen actually flaunted meaner form last season until Tyler Wilkerson—a shoo-in to win the Best Import award—imploded and was sent home.

“In the end, it’s not about winning or losing games per se,” team manager Gee Abanilla said at that time.

Wilkerson was said to have thrown a fit inside the locker room after a 98-96 loss and disrespected coach Leo Austria, as well as, in Abanilla’s words, “the people who sign our paychecks.”

Wilkerson’s banishment was San Miguel’s way of saying that team comes first and championships don’t come at a cost that’s unhealthy for the squad.

The Beermen finished last season as the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs. Armed with a talent like Wilkerson, who tossed in more than 46 points and grabbed close to 15 rebounds a contest, San Miguel was ripe for a Grand Slam.

But the campaign went pffft when the NBA veteran with the braided hair threw a tantrum after losing Game 2 to eventual champion Rain or Shine in the best-of-five Final Four series.

San Miguel’s import this time, Charles Rhodes, may not be as prolific as Wilkerson but he doesn’t have the same volcanic temperament that could break this team again. The Beermen simply look invincible early in the conference, dispatching the defending champion Elasto Painters and four other squads with so much ease.

But Austria, always mindful of the long road to the finals, simply shrugs this off.

“There’s still a long way to go and we’re actually not even talking [about the Grand Slam],” says Austria, who handled the Luzon All-Stars that played Gilas Pilipinas in the PBA All-Star Week. “What I know is that the harmony and camaraderie of the team are at an all-time high. That’s a good sign. Our job is to make sure that it stays that way and that we be able to sustain it.”

Rhodes is averaging 23.2 points and 11.2 rebounds but, according to Austria, has no problem playing with his local teammates and yielding the spotlight to them.

Austria says Rhodes shares one quality with the ill-fated Wilkerson: The fire to win each and every game. And the one fine thing about Rhodes is that he is “very coachable.”

“We’re telling him to stay out of foul trouble. That has been our problem with him in our (first five) games,” the coach says. “That’s because he really wants to win, and that intensity sometimes gets the better of him. He is very intense, very emotional.

“We need to remind him to control that and to stay away from fouls because the referees sometimes misinterpret his intensity and he falls into foul trouble every time.”

For now, the coach is happy that his import fits the San Miguel game perfectly. “We don’t need an all-around [import], because we have local players that we can depend on,” Austria says

After the All-Star break, the Beermen plunge back into action on Wednesday against TNT KaTropa. They would have played their last six games by June 2, when they close out their elimination-round schedule against GlobalPort.

Making it as the No. 1 seed again doesn’t seem to be a farfetched idea considering the way the Beermen are playing. And Austria admits to having learned a lesson dealing with a recalcitrant import like Wilkerson.

Barring any major injury to his men, the Beermen just might find themselves writing a huge chunk of PBA history at the end of the season.

“That’s a nice thought,” Austria says with a hearty laugh.

SHERWIN VARDELEON

WELL-OILED WITH coach Leo Austria at the helm, San Miguel Beer is deadly and ready to get its second Grand Slam.

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