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Breaking down Air21’s historic playoff win vs. SMB
Breaking down Air21’s historic playoff win vs. SMB
by rick olivares pic by brosi gonzales
It’s ironic that Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren mentioned that it is the 25th anniversary of the grand slam year of his old San Miguel ballclub. When Pumaren and his SMB teammates entered the PBA in the Open Conference of 1986, they won only two matches against 10 losses finishing at the bottom of the seven-team standings. The Cheesemakers had talent as they brought up that Northern Consolidated Cement team (of former college stars and national teamers) minus the naturalized players to the pro league but in that first conference, they were clearly going through a period of adjustment.
The next season, they finished third in two of the four tournaments played that year (there was a very short invitational tourney). By 1988, they had won two conference championships signifying their ascent to the top. Then in 1989 came the grand slam.
When Pumaren returned to the PBA, this time as head coach of Shopinas during the 2011-12 season, his team didn’t seem to have a clue as they went 0-14. That must have been déjà vu for the coach as his team of former college stars struggled to find their chemistry, rhythm, and game.
During the 2011-12 season, his team finished 5-27. He lost more games in one year in the PBA than during his eight years in the UAAP coaching La Salle (not counting those seasons where the matches were forfeited for player ineligibility) combined.
There was marked improvement during the 2012-13 season when Air21 went 14-25. There were two quarterfinals appearances last season and this year, his team looks to have finally found that groove. They aren’t all-league beaters like Pumaren’s old SMB teams were – yet -- but they are battling opponents tooth and nail. The Express are no longer an automatic win for foes.
Playing the returning San Miguel Beer (after a stint as the Petron Blaze Boosters) in the quarterfinals of the Commissioner’s Cup gives Coach Franz this odd vibe. Especially since he’s trying to spoil the anniversary of the Beermen’s grand slam by advancing – if possible – the campaign of Air21.
The Express finally won a playoff game by upending SMB, 92-79, in their quarterfinals match-up, last April 22 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, negating the Beermen’s twice-to-beat advantage. And what a match it was.
Air21’s 1st Quarter storm where the Express played relentless and aggressive basketball for nearly the entire game.
Air21 jumped on SMB from the opening tip. Eliud Poligrates, a coup for this club as he was freed from Talk ‘N Text, dictated the frenetic play by fearlessly attacking the basket and being aggressive against counterpart Chris Ross.
SMB’s point guard was so flustered and harried that he committed seven turnovers to his eight assists.
You know that you’re getting aggressive play from Asi Taulava and with Poligrates playing the same way, it was infectious for Air21. They double-teamed JuneMar Fajardo and got him into early foul trouble.
Stopping SMB’s dribble-drive offense
When Ross or Sol Mercado drove inside the lane, they were funneled towards the big man with another defender sliding in to prevent the drop pass. When the SMB guards kicked the ball out, they were missing shots.
The inevitable SMB comeback
SMB began to come back late in the first period when their coaching staff had import Kevin Jones playing inside more (17 points from the last two minutes of the first period all the way to the second quarter) with Fajardo saddled with fouls and relatively ineffective. They preferred the uptempo pace, something that suits players like Marcio Lassiter, Chris Lutz, and Mercado.
With Jones almost unstoppable inside that opened up the perimeter for SMB’s players.
Furthermore, Air21 was a little slower in their defensive rotations allowing the Beermen better looks from the outside and the perimeter.
Case in point: at the 1:48 mark of the 1st period and the score at 26-12 for Air21, Mercado was spotted for an open three. Jonas Villanueva was a second late in rotating out to Mercado who hit the triple.
During SMB’s next possession, Lutz found Jones for an and-one inside. Then Mercado closed out an 8-3 run to end the first and get back into the game 29-20.
Just when it seemed they had found the plot to the game, SMB began to brick shots.
With about 6:35 to play in the second period, I scribbled down in my notebook, “How big were those two missed lay-ups by Mercado and Jones? Aside from that, SMB missed three three-point attempts and one medium range jumper.
Then Taulava hit a fade away right before the 24-second shot clock expired to give Air21 a 34-22 lead.
The Beermen’s lone bright spot
Let me say this…. Kevin Jones carried the woeful Beermen. He didn’t get much support from his teammates Lutz scored 11 while Arwind Santos added 10 however the former was scoreless in the payoff period while the latter scored eight in the same frame (much too late to dent the lead).
Jones scored 34 points on 14-22 shooting from the field and 5-8 from the line. He also pulled down 15 rebounds with eight coming off the offensive glass. He also chalked up three assists and three blocks.
SMB had no flow to their game. Some players even seemed listless. And they clearly missed the lift of their twin threats in Lassiter (two points in 38 minutes) and Lutz.
Dialing back their game of yore
Taulava, the Big Fella, is far from done. He still has something in that tank. For a while he seemed content to knock guys around with his strength as his game went south. But Taulava has pride. He loves nothing more than to work on his game. And the match against SMB showed vintage Asi.
In that late charge by the Beermen to end the first quarter, Asi took a step back jumper over JuneMar with 46 seconds to play to make it 28-18. Emboldened by that big shot, he drove on their next possession to fish for Fajardo’s second foul.
Asi scored 17 points with 10 coming in the first half.
Sean Anthony played his biggest game since he starred for the Powerade Tigers’ incredible drive to the 2012 Philippine Cup Finals.
The only other player to really get under the collective skins of PBA players in Calvin Abueva and Beau Belga. Anthony is a pest with his physical game and boundless energy and penchant for being Charlie Hustle. They should create a stat just for Abueva, Belga and Anthony on how many tangled arms, cheap shots, elbows, banging inside and for position they account for every match. Anthony topscored for his team with 25 points. He also collected seven boards, one assist, and two steals.
When Taulava and Wes Witherspoon were in the bench, Anthony scored nine consecutive points to close out Air21’s third period for a 63-54 lead. And for good measure, he blocked Sol Mercado’s attempt at a buzzer beater (I don’t think Sean was credited for this).
As good a job Franz Pumaren has done with Air21, he was gracious enough to give credit to his players for this historic win by the long-suffering and title-starved franchise. The third-year PBA coach said that his team sustained their level of play and aggressiveness, kept their composure, and stuck to their system even when SMB made their run.
He tempered expectations and any celebration by noting that the two teams play in two days’ time.
Do you think his Express will continue to rain on SMB’s parade (and grand slam anniversary celebration)?
We’ll find out.