The PBA is far from perfect.
From its flawed ownership system, to its laughable lopsided trades, to the unnecessarily stringent rules that it places on aspiring draftees, the league leaves much to be desired.
Asia’s oldest professional basketball league could do better on many aspects and receives its fair share of public criticism. The scrutiny makes it easy to forget that it still has the most entertaining basketball product in the country, especially come playoff time.
Now that the field has been whittled down to the top four, the best-of-seven format is finally coming into play and the two semifinal match-ups that have emerged are as enticing as they come.
On one side of the bracket, the San Miguel Beermen and the TNT Tropang Giga will face off in the postseason for the umpteenth time. These two have a rich history with one another this millennium, with arguably the most memorable match-up coming in the finals of the 2011 PBA Governor’s Cup. A hobbled San Miguel, then playing as the Petron Blaze Boosters, pulled off a seven-game upset over TNT that spoiled their bid for a grand slam.
Since the year 2000, the Beermen have been the most successful entity under the San Miguel Corporation umbrella with 14 titles while TNT has taken seven championships home as the flagship team of the MVP group.
This latest meeting between these two rivals may not yet be the finals, but the winner of this series will enter the championship round as the favorite to win the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup. An added wrinkle in this latest chapter of their rivalry is the transition of both sides from their old reliable leaders from the past decade to their new breed of stars.
San Miguel’s multi-titled starting five of June Mar Fajardo, Arwind Santos, Marcio Lassiter, Chris Ross, and Alex Cabagnot is still considered the best in the league despite their age. That has not stopped them from building towards the future. They have an enviable bench that has three players–Terrence Romeo, CJ Perez, and Mo Tautuaa–who are potential franchise foundational pieces in their own right.
The Beermen have successfully integrated the next generation into their system and culture so far, establishing a dynamic roster that has no discernable weaknesses when fully healthy.
Meanwhile, TNT has followed a similar blueprint and they have slowly been on the uptrend over these past few years. The Tropang Giga have yet to win a title since they claimed the 2015 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, though they have made strides in their retooling process with two finals appearances in the last three conferences.
The 35-year-old Jayson Castro and the 39-year-old Kelly Williams are the only remnants of their last championship-winning group still in the rotation. They have now humbly ceded the reins to the next generation and it has allowed them to flourish under their mentorship.
RR Pogoy and Troy Rosario are the epitome of players who star in their roles and these two Gilas Pilipinas mainstays are perfect complements to any ball-dominant teammate.
They expertly fed off Ray Parks during last year’s runner-up finish in the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup albeit he is now playing in the Japan B. League.
In what seems to be a stroke of luck, their momentum was not derailed by Parks’ departure. The NLEX Road Warriors, their sister team under the MVP group, agreed to send the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft to TNT in a three-team trade. It cost the Tropang Giga just two reserves and their first round pick in the 2023 draft. With the pick that they acquired, they plucked Filipino-American guard Mikey Williams who has seamlessly filled the void left by Parks.
Pogoy, Rosario, and now Williams are their trio of the future, but TNT hopes that the future begins now. With the help of their hard-hustling role players Kib Montalbo and Poy Erram, the Tropang Giga’s stars–both young and old–powered them to a 10-1 elimination round record and the top seed in the league. Save for that one loss, they have looked rather invincible this season. However, they will have to get past their lone tormentor, this same San Miguel team, if they want to end their title drought.
The Beermen, typically a nonchalant team until the postseason rolls in, played with a playoff-intensity in their sole elimination round meeting with TNT. They came away with a valuable 83-67 win that will serve as a confidence booster for them and could possibly linger in the minds of the Tropang Giga.
This series will be a heavyweight showdown between the best team in the league this season and arguably the deepest roster in the PBA. It will not lack for entertainment or storylines as these two squads, similarly transitioning from their old guard to the new, cross paths in the semifinals on the road to this year’s championship.
The other side of the bracket may not be as star-studded, but it promises to be just as interesting and hard-fought.
Meralco is in the midst of an inspired season, finishing with the second seed in the regular season with a 9-2 record despite having no player average more than 12 points per game. The Bolts do not have any household names on their roster and their success is attributed to their complete buy-in to head coach Norman Black’s system.
Chris Newsome and Mac Belo have thrived under Black’s tutelage and have seemingly alternated big offensive games depending on their match-up. Beyond these two stars, their veteran supporting cast, bannered by Allein Maliksi, Reynel Hugnatan, Raymond Almazan, and Cliff Hodge, has provided them with steady play.
The culture at Meralco has also empowered the rest of their roster to step up when needed. Anjo Caram, Bong Quinto, Alvin Pasaol, and Aaron Black have all made the most of the opportunities presented to them, helping the Bolts in significant ways when called upon.
These energetic Bolts will enter the semifinals as the higher seed versus the third place Magnolia though they are the underdogs on paper. It remains to be seen if they can keep up with the star power of the Pambansang Manok Hotshots, but if their play this season is any indication, they are more than up to the task.
Magnolia will continue to follow the lead of their Big Three, composed of Paul Lee, Ian Sangalang, and Calvin Abueva, who have carried them all year long. Lee remains in the conversation as one of the best scorers in the league and his play will be one of the deciding factors versus Meralco. The ancillary play of his backcourt partners Mark Barroca and Jio Jalalon will be crucial in opening up opportunities for Lee and simultaneously alleviating his load.
The Pambansang Manok Hotshots also need Sangalang and Abueva, together with the 44-year-old Rafi Reavis and Jackson Corpuz, to impose their will in the frontcourt. Their physicality adds to their intimidating aura, as seen in their quarterfinal series versus Rain or Shine where they outrebounded their opponents by 23 and 27 rebounds, respectively. If they can continue this trend against Meralco, they will be difficult to stop.
Magnolia is raring to win their first title since the 2018 PBA Governor’s Cup and are hoping to make quick work of this upstart Bolts team to keep them fresh for a prospective finals match-up with either San Miguel or TNT. However, Meralco is not expected to be an easy out as they continue to seek their franchise’s first ever PBA title.
The best-of-seven semifinals kick off on October 3, with the Bolts taking on the Pambansang Manok Hotshots in the opener at 2 pm followed by the clash between the Beermen and the Tropang Giga at 4:35 pm.
This prequel to what promises to be an even more exciting finals round rightfully features the four best teams in the league during this second consecutive pandemic-marred season. These next few days will be a treat for the league’s fans as the teams have even more incentive to win the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup in the absence of the usual two other conferences this year.
For all its flaws off the court, the one redeeming quality of the PBA is that when the lights are on and tip-off commences, the league still puts on one hell of a show and these two semifinals are no exception.