Despite a month-long break triggered by the Enhanced Community Quarantine imposed on Metro Manila last August and a slew of postponements at the ensuing PBA Bubble 2.0 due to health and safety protocols, the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup postseason has finally arrived.
The TNT Tropang Giga finished on top of the standings with an almost perfect 10-1 record, with their sole loss coming against the fourth place San Miguel Beermen. These two teams, together with the Meralco Bolts and the Magnolia Hotshots, are the favorites in their respective quarterfinal match-ups and are favored to face off come the next round.
Meanwhile at the lower half of the standings, the defending Philippine Cup Champion Barangay Ginebra San Miguel claimed the final playoff berth and the right to face the Tropang Giga who will be armed with a twice-to-beat advantage.
Ginebra, Phoenix, and the Terrafirma Dyip finished with identical 4-7 records that saw them tied in eighth place. The Philippine Cup’s rules for a three-way tie called for the implementation of a quotient system that eliminated the Dyip and set the winner-take-all showdown between Ginebra and the Super LPG Fuel Masters on Saturday, September 25 at 4:35pm (Manila Time).
The excitement around the PBA postseason is unmatched and the games will only get more entertaining from here on out. The four quarterfinal match-ups all have compelling storylines which we will briefly preview below. Though there are clear cut favorites in each match-up, the history of this league has shown us that an upset or two is a likely outcome that comes around more often than not.
#1 TNT Tropang Giga (10-1)* vs. #8 Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters (4-7) or Barangay Ginebra San Miguel (4-7)
For more than a decade, Jayson Castro and Kelly Williams were two of the best players in the country. Now in the twilight of their careers, they have seamlessly transitioned into supporting roles behind the Tropang Giga’s new “Big Three” of rookie Mikey Williams, RR Pogoy, and Troy Rosario. Poy Erram and Kib Montalbo have also given them invaluable contributions as they have fully embraced the roles given to them by their returning head coach Chot Reyes.
This combination of two TNT generations has meshed seamlessly together and now has them back on top of the standings as they attempt to win the Philippine Cup for the first time since 2013. It is a no-brainer that the preferred opponent here is Phoenix, who have been underwhelming after a promising campaign last year. The defending champion Ginebra have looked sloppy and incoherent over the past few weeks, yet the talent and experience both on their roster and coaching staff cannot be overlooked.
Head coach Tim Cone’s team has looked sloppy and incoherent over the past few weeks, yet their talent and experience cannot be overlooked. They looked confident in their most recent win over Phoenix, flashing their trademark “Never Say Die Attitude” in the first of what could be three consecutive elimination games for them.
Ginebra has the tools to pull off an upset here, but the Tropang Giga have been on another level this season and will have two chances to end their title reign. With the caliber of these two teams and their respective coaching staffs, this match-up could very much have been the Finals. This promises to be the highlight of what will be a quick first round of the postseason before the best-of-seven format kicks in for the next round.
TNT is favored, but if the history of this league is any indication, Ginebra can never be counted out and they are at their deadliest when they take the court as the underdogs.
#2 Meralco Bolts (9-2)* vs. #7 NLEX Road Warriors (5-6)
This battle between two sister teams, Meralco and the NLEX Road Warriors, may be the closest of all the quarterfinal match-ups on paper.
The Bolts claimed the second seed without a ball dominant scorer and instead used an egalitarian approach that has caught the rest of the PBA flat footed. They have a whopping nine players averaging between seven and 12 points per game, which alone is enough to tell the story of their success in this Philippine Cup, and their team-based approach has them in prime position to repeat, if not exceed, last year’s semifinal appearance.
On the other side of the floor, NLEX has managed to stay afloat without their Japan-bound superstar Kiefer Ravena through the combined efforts of Kevin Alas, a rejuvenated Jericho Cruz, and veteran center JR Quinahan. Without Ravena, the Road Warriors do not have the depth to keep up with Meralco. However, the possibility of a big scoring performance from Alas, Cruz, or even rookie Calvin Oftana, who is coming off a career-best 34-point explosion in their last regular season match versus this same Meralco squad, gives them an opportunity to win every time they step on the court.
#3 Magnolia Hotshots (8-3) vs. #6 Rain or Shine Elasto Painters (6-5)
Paul Lee has clearly moved on from the hamstring injury that he suffered earlier this conference. The Lethal Weapon torched the Beermen with 32 points in their crucial win this week that put them ahead in the standings.
More importantly for Magnolia, a healthy Lee remains one of the best perimeter scorers in the league and puts them in the mix for the title. Lee alone can will a team to victory which makes the Hotshots even more deadly as Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang, and Mark Barroca have all had strong conferences of their own.
They should make quick work of the scrappy Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, Lee’s former team, in this best-of-three series, but this team cannot be overlooked. Though they are clearly looking to the future with a roster filled with younger prospects, the Elasto Painters have a trio of recognizable veterans in Beau Belga, Gabe Norwood, and former PBA MVP James Yap–himself a former member of the Magnolia franchise before he and Lee were traded for one another–who might just have enough in the tank to pull off an upset in this abbreviated series.
#4 San Miguel Beermen (7-4) vs. #5 NorthPort Batang Pier (6-5)
The Beermen won five consecutive Philippine Cup championships before Ginebra ended their run last season. The five core members (June Mar Fajardo, Arwind Santos, Alex Cabagnot, Marcio Lassiter, and Chris Ross) behind that legendary run are now aging, hobbled, or both. Their best days may already be behind them, yet in typical San Miguel fashion, their next generation of superstars is ready to take up the cudgels for this historic franchise.
Terrence Romeo and CJ Perez have led them in scoring this season while Mo Tautuaa has been an imposing force inside. These next generation Beermen are ready to carry the torch for this team and can prove it with a title in this Philippine Cup. Their ability to carry the load bodes well for their older teammates who can take on a lighter load as they preserve themselves for the later rounds of the postseason.
Cabagnot may not suit up, but the rest of their veterans have slowly rounded into form as the season has progressed. Six-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo had a promising regular season finale against Alaska (17 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists) which is a promising development for their title hopes as he makes his way back from a fracture that had him sidelined for more than a year.
Fajardo will rekindle his collegiate rivalry with the NorthPort Batang Pier’s 7’0 center Greg Slaughter who has also battled injuries over the past few years. However, the latest wrestling match between Fajardo and Slaughter may take a back seat to the 26-year-old Robert Bolick who has already established himself as one of the best players in the league.
Bolick is coming off a 22-point, 13-rebound, and 13-assist triple double in their last elimination round contest that capped off a brilliant regular season. He has also formed an electrifying alley-oop duo with high-flying rookie Jamie Malonzo that makes every Batang Pier game a must-watch. The depth of San Miguel roster may be too much for this upstart NorthPort team to overcome, but Bolick and company are not going to go down without a fight.
The winners of these quarterfinal match-ups will then proceed to a best-of-seven semifinals. Though the top seeds are the overwhelming favorites, the shorter format of the quarterfinals increases the likelihood of an upset.
TNT and San Miguel are poised for a head-on collision in the semifinals which should be an interesting match-up as the multi-titled Beermen are the only team to have beaten the Tropang Giga this year.
Meanwhile, Magnolia and Meralco are favored to meet on the other side of the bracket and a potential seven-game series between these two teams should be a fun contrast of styles as the top-heavy Hotshots will try to out-gun the deep Meralco bench.
The PBA playoffs are upon us and things will only get crazier from here.