As the team with the most PBA championships overall with 27 (and eight in the last decade), winning has become second-nature for the San Miguel Beermen so much so that their current situation seems like uncharted territory.
After winning five straight PBA Philippine Cup titles, SMB failed to advance past the quarterfinals of the 2020 Honda Philippine Cup and in this year’s squad are currently in the middle of the pack at 3-2.
Their play so far in the 2021 Honda PBA Philippine Cup has been wildly inconsistent and their recent 110-104 overtime loss to the previously winless TerraFirma Dyip served as a microcosm of where they currently are: a loaded and talented squad, who are hit or miss when it comes to closing games.
Part of the issue comes due to the long layoff that has disrupted their momentum, one that may not have been particularly helpful for an older team like the Beermen. However, it also comes as they have yet to play more than a few games with a complete lineup.
June Mar Fajardo and Terrence Romeo continue to work back to their respective pre-injury forms, with both players coming up with big games in the loss to the Dyip. Fajardo arguably had his best game in nearly two years, as he finished with 18 points, a team-high 12 rebounds, three assists, and a game-high three blocks. This is actually the second straight game where he registered a double-double of at least 16 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks and his third double-double overall this season.
By halftime, he already had nine points, seven rebounds, and two blocks, maintaining the steady presence on the floor that had allowed San Miguel to stay close with TerraFirma at halftime, 42-40. The long layoff has certainly not affected Fajardo’s offense as his mid-range jump shots continue to be automatic. The six-time PBA MVP continues to get back to that MVP-level after fracturing his right tibia back in February 2020, but at this point, Fajardo at around 80 percent is better than no Fajardo at all.
Romeo has only played in two games so far this season after suffering a left knee injury back in the opening-day loss to the Meralco Bolts. In his first game back, he scored a game-high 28 points, and nearly helped SMB outlast Terrafirma during the late stages of the game.
There were some early signs of rust on the part of Romeo, but he bucked an early 2-of-5 shooting line to finish the rest of the game by making nine of his next 16 shots. His confidence grew as the game went on and despite the loss, his performance goes to show that he can still take over when needed. This could help the Beermen moving forward, especially if the former FEU Tamaraw can completely shake off the rust.
That Fajardo and Romeo connected on a number of plays should also bode well for both them and the rest of San Miguel moving forward. They, along with Marcio Lassiter, remain to be SMB’s best inside-outside weapons and when they are clicking, it only opens up opportunities for the rest of the team.
Beyond Fajardo, Romeo and the rest of the starters, points were hard to come by for SMB. In fact, the 24 bench points the Beermen scored against the Dyip were their lowest for the season. Mo Tautuaa and CJ Perez finished with 11 and 10 points, respectively, but apart from Fonzo Gotladera (three points), everyone else on the bench came up empty. Alex Cabagnot would have been able to pick up the slack, but he continues to recover from a back injury.
As one of the older teams in the league, San Miguel would benefit greatly from contributions from their younger players on the bench. Not only does it make them depend less on their starters, who each played an average of 37.22 minutes in this game, but it also forces opponents to make adjustments to their gameplans, even if it only amounts to incremental changes.
A well-balanced bench can also help them maintain leads, as they have held double-digit leads in all their games so far. Imbalances in the lineup may have also forced SMB head coach Leo Austria to go back to his starters earlier than he would prefer, disrupting his rotations in the process.
The two-year championship drought feels like an eternity for the San Miguel Beermen and the vulnerabilities that have revealed themselves so far could extend that dry spell. More than a handful of games remain for them to figure things out, and it will take a whole-of-team approach (on top of both June Mar and Terrence Romeo rounding back into form) to do so.