Don’t blink in Game 3

The Philippine Star - - SPORTS - By JOAQUIN M. HENSON

If you think Game 2 of the PBA Gov­er­nors Cup best-of-seven Fi­nals at the Big Dome last Fri­day was a thriller, ex­pect Game 3 to go up sev­eral notches in the level of ex­cite­ment as Mag­no­lia looks to open a 3-0 lead over Alaska at the Ynares Cen­ter in An­tipolo tonight.

While the Aces are far from fin­ished, they’re tee­ter­ing on the brink. Un­less they stem the tide tonight, Mag­no­lia might just sweep. That means it’s a vir­tual must-win for Alaska in Game 3. The se­ries could’ve eas­ily been tied, 1-all, as the Aces led 80 per­cent of the way in Game 2. Like a thief in the night, Mag­no­lia stole it from Alaska down the stretch. The Hot­shots led only for 4:54 min­utes but the tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter for coach Chito Vic­tolero.

Only two Aces scored in the fourth pe­riod last Fri­day – Mike Har­ris with four points and Chris Banchero with two. For 12 min­utes, all Alaska could score was six points. In the last 4:55, the Aces were blanked as Mag­no­lia ig­nited a 7-0 clos­ing bomb that set­tled the is­sue, 77-71. Dur­ing that silent stretch, Alaska missed nine shots in a row, in­clud­ing four from beyond the arc and had two turnovers. In the quar­ter, Alaska com­mit­ted seven mis­cues and went 2-of-18 from the field, flub­bing seven triples. One of the missed treys came from Abel Gal­liguez who saw ac­tion only in the last pe­riod.

Vic­tolero tight­ened the screws in the fi­nal 12 min­utes and the Aces blinked. It’s no sur­prise that Mag­no­lia is the league’s No. 1 de­fen­sive team. Be­fore the Fi­nals, the Hot­shots gave up an av­er­age of 94 points. In the Fi­nals, they’re out­do­ing them­selves as Alaska was held to 84 in Game 1 and 71 in Game 2. In his play­book, Vic­tolero has a matchup ready to con­front any Alaska player. Rafi Reavis is Har­ris’ pri­mary de­fender but when the for­mer NBA guard from Rice Univer­sity tries to grind it out at the post, Romeo Travis quickly slips in to dou­ble. The awe­some length of both Reavis and Travis makes it dif­fi­cult for Har­ris not just to split the dou­ble but to find a clear path to pass.

Vic­tolero’s small lineup is a de­fen­sive ten­der­izer, soft­en­ing up the op­po­si­tion for the kill. Justin Mel­ton, Jio Jalalon and Mark Bar­roca are feisty, pesky and ab­so­lutely ir­ri­tat­ing when it comes to putting pres­sure on the man with the ball. They pounce on the han­dler, trap and force ei­ther an out­right turnover or a bad pass. Paul Lee and P. J. Si­mon are oth­ers whom Vic­tolero ro­tates in the back­court.

Alaska coach Alex Comp­ton re­lies heav­ily on his guards for of­fense and that’s why if Banchero, Si­mon En­ciso, Jvee Ca­sio, Ping Ex­ci­mini­ano and Jeron Teng are bot­tled up, the Aces ma­chine sput­ters. With Vic Manuel not 100 per­cent, Har­ris has to do a lot more than usual. The prob­lem is nei­ther Noy Ba­clao nor Sonny Thoss can of­fer much sup­port to ease the pres­sure off Har­ris.

An ad­just­ment that Comp­ton might consider is mov­ing Har­ris to the three spot. That would dis­lodge Reavis from the matchup and open a lot of space if Mag­no­lia dou­bles Har­ris in the perime­ter. It could cre­ate back­door op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ba­clao or Thoss. Carl Bryan Cruz could step in as a stretch four. Clearly, Comp­ton has to ex­plore other of­fen­sive op­tions if his guards are closely mon­i­tored. Mag­no­lia’s de­fense is an­chored on its back­court so Alaska might want to shift its fo­cus of at­tack to the front­line.

Be­cause Mag­no­lia and Alaska like to press, turnovers will run high ev­ery game. That’s par for the course. The key is the tim­ing of the mis­cues. When the game’s on the line, you can’t af­ford to throw away pos­ses­sions. That’s where ex­pe­ri­ence and poise come in. Eight Hot­shots have played on at least one cham­pi­onship squad with Reavis, 41, the most sea­soned, win­ning 10 ti­tles in 16 Fi­nals. In con­trast, only two Aces have played on ti­tle teams with Thoss show­ing three cham­pi­onships and Ba­clao one.

In PBA Fi­nals his­tory, the team that goes on top 2-0 ends up win­ning the crown with an 84 per­cent prob­a­bil­ity. The Hot­shots are now only two wins away of de­liv­er­ing a first cham­pi­onship to Vic­tolero. But Alaska’s a proud fran­chise with a cham­pi­onship tra­di­tion. The Aces won’t roll over and die, that’s for sure. The se­ries is far from over and in Comp­ton’s mind, you clinch the ti­tle with four wins, not two. Alaska hasn’t won a ti­tle in the last 15 con­fer­ences and Mag­no­lia, in the last 11. They’re both hun­gry for vic­tory. Comp­ton is in his fifth Fi­nals and Vic­tolero, in his sec­ond. One of them will win his first PBA ti­tle when this is over.

Game 2 was a dog­fight, a low-scor­ing, drag-out bat­tle that had fans up on their feet re­peat­edly in the course of the ex­cit­ing con­test. Game 3 will be more fiercely fought, more in­tense and more phys­i­cal. Alaska will be bat­tling for sur­vival while Mag­no­lia will try to ham­mer in the third of four nails to seal the Aces’ cof­fin.

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