A dominant win by the San Miguel Beermen more often than not comes with a stellar performance from six-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo. In SMB’s 121-97 win over the Meralco Bolts in Game 1 of the 2022 Honda PBA Philippine Cup Semifinals, however, Fajardo played sidekick to CJ Perez.
Perez set the tone early, scoring four quick points as the Beermen raced to an 8-0 lead after a minute and a half of game time. Even when the Bolts chipped at the lead, SMB found a way to respond and build a lead that ballooned to as many as 26 points. With the outcome having been decided early in the game, San Miguel decided to make the victory quite an opening statement.
The former Lyceum Pirate and San Sebastian Stag led all scorers with 25 points, leading a balanced effort that saw seven of his teammates scoring at least seven points. Perez also had five rebounds, four assists, and four steals in the win, doing a little bit of everything to help SMB draw first blood.
Perez only knows one thing when he has the ball in his hands: attack. The two-time PBA Scoring Champion navigates through screens and uses his physical gifts to get baskets, but the added change of direction and pace shows a patience that comes with years of experience and hours put into in-season practice and offseason work. Aggression continues to define Perez’s game, but instead of being forceful, the 28-year old has been more deliberate with his approach.
With Perez’s efforts, the ball moves around whether or not it was by design. There were moments early in his stint with the Beermen where he continued to feel things out but with more games under his belt and time spent with his teammates, the 2019 SEA Games Gold medallist for 3×3 Men’s Basketball eventually found his groove.
Perez’s 5.9 assists per game led the team in the preliminary round of the 2022 Philippine Cup and indicates the concerted effort to get his teammates involved. It was also evident given how SMB made 57 percent of their field goal attempts and 66 percent of their shots from inside the 3-point line on 30 assists in Game 1. That being said, this may well be San Miguel’s winning formula for the series and perhaps even beyond.
Early on, it is looking like a pick-your-poison series for Meralco, who will have to contend with either stymieing Perez or clogging the paint on the likes of Fajardo and Rodney Brondial. Clearly Perez’s activity was contagious in that it brought out highly efficient games from Brondial (20 points on 80 percent field goal shooting and 11 rebounds) and Vic Manuel (16 points on 87 percent field goal shooting).
The semifinal series is clearly far from over and shutting down Perez and letting SMB figure out how to get the ball to their big men could be an option for the Bolts. Time and again though, the 2017 NCAA MVP has proven that he always finds a way to get involved, whether that be in being disruptive defensively or serving as a decoy to confuse the defense.
On the other hand, Perez understands that he is the marked man and must not fall into the trap of making questionable decisions. Game 1 saw him commit zero turnovers, and while that will likely not be the case in Game 2, he should continue to focus on maintaining his play from the semifinal opener. If for anything, his next goal should be in getting the rest of the Beermen’s shooters involved, as Jericho Cruz and Von Pessumal made only one out of their five 3-point attempts.
The identity of the San Miguel Beermen still lies with June Mar Fajardo, but CJ Perez has emerged as the bridge to the next era once Fajardo takes on a more subdued role and eventually calls it a career. Sure, SMB will always find a way to reload but Perez will lead the way and we’re all seeing signs of it now.