And then there were two. Only the San Miguel Beermen and TNT KaTropa are left to dispute the 2017 Oppo PBA Commissioner’s Cup crown. SMB hasn’t won this conference in 17 years, while TNT just won it two years ago. How will the Jayson Castro-Chris Ross matchup play out? Is Joshua Smith 100%, or will he be replaced? Can June Mar Fajardo handle the TNT frontline? Chuck Araneta, Charlie Cuna, Carlo Pamintuan, Jutt Sulit, and Noel Zarate tackle these questions in this latest edition of Sports5’s Five on Five.
1. The key player for SMB in this series is…
Chuck: Chris Ross. He might have the biggest challenge in this series- maintain his stellar shooting and scoring, while trying to slow down Jayson Castro on the other end. After Castro erupted for 38 points in the closeout game versus Barangay Ginebra, it’s clear that TNT will be looking to get him going, especially if Joshua Smith isn’t 100%. Ross’ effort on both ends will have a huge effect on the series.
Charlie: Chris Ross. He is a two-time Philippine Cup Finals MVP who has transformed himself from an almost strictly defensive player and distributor to an offensive threat and inspirational leader. Since he plays both ways in such an exuberant manner, his energy is contagious and oftentimes rubs off on his teammates, transforming an already powerful line-up into a lethal one with one of his heroic, throw caution to the wind, bahala na si Batman plays. Others may get the headlines; Ross just gets the job done.
Carlo: Chris Ross. The best two-way point guard in the league was amazing in their semifinals series against Star. As always, Ross shifted to a higher gear when the games meant more. Ross will definitely be a threat on offense but how he defends Jayson Castro will be key for SMB as they try to win their second straight title this season.
Jutt: June Mar Fajardo. This will go down as one of the toughest tests the three-time MVP would have had in his PBA career. He’ll be going up against a 6-foot-10, 300-plus pound semi-agile big man. June Mar will be challenge offensively and defensively. And if in case he does get past Smith, TNT still has guys like Kelly Williams, Mo Tautuaa, Troy Rosario and other bigs. It’s bound to be a long series for Fajardo. But he’s the MVP. A lot will still be expected off of him.
Noel: June Mar Fajardo. The health of Joshua Smith is in question and without him, no one player on TNT can defend against the reigning 3-time MVP. Fajardo will be the focal point of the SMB attack as he was able to conserve himself in the semis–thanks to Chris Ross being the focal point there. If Smith isn’t good to go, his replacement must start watching Kraken videos ASAP.
2. The key player for TNT in this series is…
Chuck: Joshua Smith. Kelly Williams has the strength and size to defend Charles Rhodes, but there’s no other local on the team that can contend with June Mar Fajardo. That’s where Joshua Smith comes in. If he’s even close to 80% and can give TNT near 30 minutes, then that should be enough for him to have an impact on the floor. Fajardo will have to defend him as well, which is also a tiring prospect for a team that only goes seven deep.
Charlie: Jayson Castro. When he plays well (and not necessarily Game 4 versus Ginebra in the Semis well), he makes life so much easier for the other TNT players, who then can just settle into their roles as his “supporting cast”. Make no mistake though – they are a supporting cast that can blast other teams into oblivion. It’s just that when Castro is on, then so is TNT. The two RRs (Garcia and Pogoy) will also be important. They both spread the floor with outside sniping and are constant threats. If Garcia is on, Castro can get the much-needed rest in spots for him to take them home at the end, if the game is close.
Carlo: Jayson Castro. With their import situation surrounded with questions, the KaTropa will only go wherever Castro takes them. The Blur showed in Game 4 against Ginebra that he can still dominate ball games when he has to and he’ll have no other choice but to play big in the finals too.
Jutt: Joshua Smith. He’s the reason why TNT got this far. And unless he can continue to own the paint, this time against much bigger opponents, the chances of the Tropa getting the crown will be slim. He was so dominant against the Barangay, he will have to be the same against a loaded SMB.
Noel: Jayson Castro. The Game 4 explosion in the semis proves that the Best Point Guard in Asia is still more than capable of flipping on that “take over and dominate” switch if the need arises. The SMB backcourt must view only the Game 4 tape to prepare their game plan as Castro showed the complete package in that clincher. TNT has retooled with a zillion shooters which makes stopping Castro extra challenging.
3. SMB can win it all because…
Chuck: Come on, it’s San Miguel. As long as they’re in a series, they will always be the favorites.
Charlie: It is the strongest team in the league right now, personnel-wise. It has won some recent championships with essentially the same lineup, and Rhodes is an import who fits right in, i.e., contributes as needed without needing the ball in his hands. The team has Fajardo, who is the most dominant player in the league (including imports, especially since Ratliffe is gone), surrounded by a bevy of all-stars/all-star calibre players. Coach Leo has the winning touch and there is no doubt about that anymore.
Carlo: The biggest, both literally and figuratively, challenge for SMB in Joshua Smith will either be unavailable or will play in very limited capacity. TNT got Smith because they knew that the path to the title will have to go through June Mar Fajardo and Charles Rhodes. The size of Smith gave them a decent shot and his injury definitely hurts their chances.
Cohesion was already a big advantage for SMB. Their local lineup has remained largely the same. Coach Leo Austria’s rotation has been largely the same with the only difference being Arwind Santos playing off the bench. TNT is still developing their chemistry as mid-conference acquisitions Anthony Semerad and RR Garcia are now playing major minutes for their squad. Now, they could introduce a new import in Mike Myers who was on standby in Game 4 of the semis but playing his first game in the finals against a team that has had their import since the start will be very tough.
Jutt: They’re still the best two-way team in the league today. Although they don’t use their bench too much, it’s proven to be a sound strategy. I mean, 100 points among the starters alone? That’s no joke! Skill-wise, talent-wise, San Miguel is pretty much in a category of their own.
Noel: They’re finally and legitimately in the Grand Slam convo again and are hungry to take that necessary step to its realization. The championship experience they’ve garnered from the Philippine Cup and a low maintenance import (finally) in Charles Rhodes has given the Beermen most of the ingredients they need to get this done. They haven’t won this conference in 17 years. That fuels their mission now.
4. TNT can win it all because…
Chuck: Jayson Castro always plays at an incredible level in Finals series. TNT has the depth to withstand the incredible starting five power of San Miguel, especially if this is a long series. If Joshua Smith is healthy, then I can see this being a long series. And if it goes the distance with TNT relatively fresh, then anything’s possible.
Charlie: It is probably the second-strongest team in the league, personnel-wise. When all the TNT guns are ablaze, this team is hard to stop. The biggest question mark right now, though, is the import situation and the status of very big man Joshua Smith. If he is at or near 100%, he will clog the lane and at least be able to look Fajardo eye-to-eye and challenge The Kraken. The locals are a mix of veterans who have won before and young ‘uns who are hungry to follow suit – a nice combination. Coach Nash has their attention and respect, and they seem ready to sacrifice for him. The guard play is key.
Carlo: They have a deep rotation and everyone is ready to chip in. Coach Nash Racela struggled earlier in his stint with TNT because the stars were not used to the shorter minutes they were playing. Now, it looks like all of them have already bought into the system. They might be playing fewer minutes but they have more energy when they are on the floor. It’s no secret that coach Austria will rely largely on 6 men to win him another championship and TNT will be the perfect team to exploit that.
Jutt: They’re deep and they use that depth wisely. For the longest time, TNT has been trying to 1) get younger, and 2) get bigger. And I’ve always thought that they’ve been trying to get bigger for one reason alone – to get to match up with San Miguel. Now that will be tested.
Noel: Nash Racela has built a team that can beat SMB in a long series. The acquisition of Anthony Semerad, RR Garcia and Smith have TNT brandishing that right set of weaponry to stretch SMB on the floor. Racela mentioned during the Game 4 post game presscon that the extra rest will benefit Smith and his recovery from the injuries, but it actually benefits the veterans more as Castro, Ranidel de Ocampo, Kelly Williams and Ryan Reyes have more days to draw out the reserves that helped them win it all in 2015.
5. So who’ll take home the championship trophy?
Chuck: SMB in 6.
Charlie: SMB in 6 or 7.
Carlo: It’s tough to bet against SMB. If Smith was completely healthy, then maybe the KaTropa will have enough to score an upset. But as things stand right now, the Philippine Cup champions have the better import and that’s why I’m picking them to win.
SMB in 6.
Jutt: San Miguel in 6.
Noel: SMB in 6. If Smith is not 100% or if he is replaced, that’s going to throw the TNT chemistry in a flux.