It’s a new look for the familiar San Miguel-TNT rivalry

Anytime San Miguel and TNT get together in the Finals, creating narratives becomes as easy getting a piece of candy from a baby. It’s a battle between two of the most winningest franchises in this decade. A clash between the golden boys of rival corporations SMC and MVP. In this decade alone, they’ve figured in three Finals series with San Miguel holding a 2-1 lead against TNT. This is bad blood at its finest, with assurances that no team will bother to show any mercy. 

But for the case of this Finals series, one doesn’t need to go deep into the history of both teams to understand their need to beat each other. This is a journey that started April 2018, when the TNT KaTropa made a move that should have catapulted them to championship glory once more.

Just before the 2018 PBA Commissioner’s Cup started, TNT pulled the trigger and traded former number one pick Mo Tautuaa and picks to acquire the services of Terrence Romeo and Yousef Taha.

Just before that trade, the KaTropa had only made the Finals once during the latter half of this decade. Ever since 2015, the league had been dominated by the San Miguel Beermen, their corporate rivals. TNT wanted to end the dynasty that was San Miguel and they believed pairing Best Point Guard in Asia Jayson Castro with scoring dynamo Romeo could make that goal possible. 

Except, it didn’t. During the two conferences Romeo played for TNT, the team failed to even sniff the Semifinals, having been booted out as early as the first round. In fact, during Romeo’s last conference with the franchise, the team didn’t even advance to the playoffs. The tension within the franchise was at an all-time high. The move to acquire Romeo was clearly a win-now move, but they weren’t achieving the winning at all. 

So in December 2018, they opted to trade Romeo to the San Miguel Beermen in exchange for David Semerad, Brian Heruela, and a 2021 first round pick. Others felt it was unfair given the magnitude of talent Romeo brought to TNT. But for the KaTropa, this was a move that gave them more depth around their aging franchise star. Heruela, in particular, provided bulldog defense and stable playmaking to ease the load off Jayson Castro. It may have felt like a loss that December. But in the long run, it’s a move that has been paying off.

Despite bowing out of the quarterfinals once again during the 2019 Philippine Cup, there were promising signs for the Katropa to hold on to.

For one, Castro was still a very good basketball player. While not as explosive as before, The Blur has evolved into one of the league’s best pick and roll initiators. He doesn’t just barrel his way to the rim anymore recklessly. He’s gained zen-level control of TNT’s offense and has reminded everyone of just how great he is. To call Castro the league’s best point guard remains a safe assumption

The rest of the team has followed suit with Castro’s revival. RR Pogoy, in particular, has continued to make strides as the league’s premier 3DA wing. He’s a catch and shoot savant who’s blended in his shooting with ample attacking and defense that remains as stout as ever. Troy Rosario has also experienced a rebirth of sorts as he’s started to figure out playing between the 3 and 4. Don Trollano has become one of the best combo forwards in the league. Brian Heruela continued to be a bulldog. There was a reason to be hopeful if you were a TNT fan.

Come the Commissioner’s Cup, the KaTropa brought in former Houston Rocket Terrence Jones as their import. Some felt it was just a big-name acquisition by TNT and nothing more, but in reality, it was the final piece to the puzzle of their championship dreams. Jones has been dominant all conference long, but even more impressive has been his seamless fit within TNT’s system. He’s shown his best self when playing as the roll man to Castro’s PnR initiation and he’s shown off passing chops off this action. The talent has obviously been outstanding for TNT. The fit, even moreso.

After a slight scare from the Alaska Aces during the quarterfinals, the KaTropa figured things out and beat defending champions Barangay Ginebra San Miguel in four games to book a ticket to the Finals once again. Finishing with the first seed in the elimination round was not a fluke. This team looks real. But the goal for them remains the same; to knock off the dynasty that sits atop the PBA, the San Miguel Beermen.

It’s easy to mistake the Beermen to be untouchable because of how long they’ve dominated the league. There’s reason to believe so, as they’ve become staples of the PBA Finals having made five of the past 10 PBA finals. They are the ultimate inevitable of the league, a team that got even richer when they acquired Romeo last December 2018 off a trade with a KaTropa. Anything less than a championship from the Beermen would have been deemed a failure.

But the past two conferences, the Beermen have shown signs of vulnerability that shook even the most diehard of fans. During the 2019 Philippine Cup, it took them seven games and a one-point win to secure their fifth straight All-Filipino championship. June Mar Fajardo continued to reign terror on the league and has even gotten better. However, his other teammates, notably Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot, have started to regress, bit by bit, as time has passed. Even Spider-man and Crunchman aren’t immune from something as inevitable as aging. Father Time is the true ultimate inevitable.

It suddenly felt like it was the end of an era during the middle of the Commissioner’s Cup, as the Beermen lost to the Columbian Dyip in overtime despite the attempted heroics of Arwind Santos. This should have been a win by the Beermen, especially since they had former Best Import of the Conference Charles Rhodes with them. But it wasn’t. San Miguel looked tired. Going into that fifth gear looked impossible, even for a group this intact. Maybe this was it; the true end of an era.

But champions don’t quit. They try their best to defy natural forces and adjust to whatever nature throws at them. They opted to replace Charles Rhodes and brought in former Brooklyn Net Chris McCullough to the fold. Others felt it was too late. But like what they say; better late than never.

From the get-go, McCullough looked like a perfect fit beside the Beermen as he provided spacing Rhodes couldn’t. What made Rhodes so effective two years ago was how he could play small-ball center whenever teams pounced on Fajardo in the pick and roll. Teams can’t do that anymore. The Kraken’s improved so much that teams now have to adjust to him killing their big men in the low post. So what happened was, both Rhodes and Fajardo took up so much space down low, thus restricting the natural flow of the Beermen. Enter McCullough, who opened up the floodgates for San Miguel and revived their hopes of a Grand Slam.

In the NBA, McCullough had difficulty finding a place because he was stuck in between playing the 3 and the 4. He didn’t have a natural position, which made it difficult for teams to trust giving him heavy minutes. In SMB, a player of his type was who exactly they needed. Big enough to play the 4. Very skilled that he can slide to the 3 in jumbo line-ups.

The result has been a rejuvenated bunch of Beermen. The offense of San Miguel has gone back to Death Star levels of scary. Fajardo has found himself dominating in the post once again. Romeo has shown improved hold of running an offense. But most importantly, Chris Ross has stepped his game up a notch, showing shooting and off-ball skill never seen from him before. Everyone needs to stop calling him Rajon Ross. He’s his own man, a development story that kids should look up to when coaches place them in boxes. He’s a damn good player.

Because of all that, the Beermen survived a twice-to-beat disadvantage versus Northport in the quarterfinals and a gritty Rain or Shine team in the semifinals to book a ticket to the Finals once again. Despite their seemingly inevitable rise, make no mistake about it; this is the most vulnerable the Beermen have been in a long time. Losing Marcio Lassiter to injury hurts their wing depth a lot. Expect Trollano and Rosario to pounce on that hole the Beermen have. 

Really, at the end of the day, throw everything out the window. This is the most evenly matched these two teams have looked in a Finals series. Two imports, Jones and McCullough, with NBA-caliber talent going up against each other for championship (and maybe even Gilas naturalization!) glory. Two of the peskiest guards, Pogoy and Ross, in the PBA clashing in what figures to be a gritty clash. And of course, Romeo and Castro, who should have been the league’s new golden boy duo, but instead face each other on opposite sides of the fence as the centerpiece of the one of the league’s premier rivalries. Then of course, there’s Fajardo, probably the greatest player of all time. 

San Miguel. TNT. Bad blood. It doesn’t get any better than this.