Danny Ildefonso described it best: the real battle. After more than a month in the PBA Bubble, we’ve finally reached the point where the games matter the most.
We all predicted an incredibly close race to the top and that’s exactly what we got. Eight teams over .500, with only two games separating the first and eighth seeds. How will all of that materialize once the ball gets rolling? Let’s break it down.
#1 Barangay Ginebra San Miguel vs. #8 Rain or Shine Elastopainters
Despite only two games separating Ginebra and Rain or Shine, their current situations coming into the playoffs couldn’t be any more different. Ginebra has arguably been the most stable team in the entire league this conference. Rain or Shine, on the other hand, has been its most erratic.
Ginebra’s taken over as the league’s title favorites thanks to their incredible depth. Having two top-five level players in Stanley Pringle and Japeth Aguilar has helped them remain consistent throughout the Bubble. But it’s the other pieces such as Scottie Thompson, Jeff Chan, and even young guns like Prince Caperal and Arvin Tolentino, which has boosted their ceiling to even greater heights. When everyone’s firing, the they’re difficult to stop.
The same can be said of the Rain or Shine Elastopainters; when everyone’s firing, they can be difficult to stop. The problem is, they still lack the seasoned, top-tier talent to be consistent. Rey Nambatac and Javee Mocon have been tremendous for Rain or Shine. The problem is, it’s evident that they still lack the experience you find from the Ginebras and the San Miguels of the world. To be fair, they are a very young group. But this is a reality they’re going to have to conquer sooner than later.
With that being said, expect a close game between the Gin Kings and the Elastopainters. Rain or Shine has the depth and young talent to go toe to toe against the firepower of Ginebra. But once the going gets tough, expect Ginebra’s vets to take over and win this series in one game.
Prediction: Barangay Ginebra in 1
#2 Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters vs. #7 Magnolia Pambansang Manok Hotshots
This isn’t your usual 2 vs. 7 matchup. As a matter of fact, this is a duel between two of the hottest teams in the entire league. Phoenix has strung together four straight wins. Magnolia, on the other hand, rose from the dead and fired off six straight victories to secure a spot in the playoffs.
The road hasn’t been easy for the LPG Fuel Masters. As a matter of fact, during their final elimination game against Rain or Shine, they were 12 minutes away from completely losing the 2-seed. They’ve looked like cardiac kids more than dominant title contenders throughout this run. But you can’t deny that they’re a good team. Matthew Wright has arguably been the MVP in the Bubble. Jason Perkins and Justin Chua have combined to become arguably the league’s best frontcourt.
If Phoenix is LPG, Magnolia’s Diesel. They started out SLOW. Despite that, there wasn’t that much worry regarding Magnolia within PBA circles. There was this belief they’d flip the switch and flip the switch they did.
Leading their run has been the fiery play of Paul Lee. He’s looked like a completely different monster after going through his 20+ eggs per day diet this quarantine. Helping out Lee has been the electric play of Jio Jalalon and Jackson Corpuz and the ever so steady presence of Mark Barroca, Chris Banchero, and Ian Sangalang. We expected plenty out of this team coming into this season and after a slow start, they’ve certainly delivered.
This will arguably be the most contentious series in the quarterfinals. It’s undoubtedly the most difficult to predict. But if I had to choose, I would (hesitantly) bet on Magnolia stealing this series from Phoenix in two games. The LPG Fuel Masters has had an amazing run throughout this Bubble, but Magnolia’s championship-proven roster that’s been in Human Torch mode is going to be difficult to stop.
However, remember this: A win by Magnolia further cements their greatness in the league. A win by Phoenix catapults them to true title contention. Will Magnolia allow the inevitable to happen, or will Phoenix finally start to get over the hump?
Prediction: Magnolia in 2
#3 TNT Tropang GIGA vs. #6 Alaska Aces
The PBA Bubble opened with an exciting game between and Tropang GIGA and the Aces. Back then, it felt both teams were still trying to find their footing after the long layoff. In hindsight, however, that game served as quite the microcosm of how these two teams truly stand.
RR Pogoy was the star of that game, but it was ultimately Jayson Castro who finished things off for TNT. He is still the most important player of this franchise. What players like Pogoy, Bobby Ray Parks, and JP Erram provide is support for Asia’s Best Point Guard. When Pogoy gets going, he is tough to stop. Parks has emerged as one of the most consistent wings in the entire league. Erram is slowly finding a niche for a title contender. This team anchors its play around its talent, and deservingly so.
It’s been the opposite for the Aces. There was no one player who stood out during their first game in the Bubble and it’s remained that way. Their system and coaching is what’s catapulted them back to the playoffs. Barkley Eboña, Jeron Teng, and Mike Digregorio have had their moments, but ultimately, it’s Coach Jeff Cariaso’s leadership which has served as the anchor of this group. The Aces needed a revamp after four years of frustration, and Cariaso’s provided just that.
However, the Aces’ journey for this conference will end against the Tropang GIGA. There are still questions about the mental toughness of TNT and whether they can finally get over the hump and win a championship, but in this series, they won’t matter that much. Alaska is still very young. They lack the seasoning to push TNT and the quarterfinals will serve as an important step in their development. Expect TNT to move on to the semifinals, but of course, the Aces won’t go down without a fight.
Prediction: TNT in 1
#4 San Miguel Beermen vs. #5 Meralco Bolts
In some way, this feels like the most boring quarterfinals series on paper. San Miguel, despite not having June Mar Fajardo, has looked like old news. They’re still very good. Meralco, while young, doesn’t have the conventionally top-tier talent you’d expect out of a youthful team. They’re a growing squad. So, what’s there to look forward to?
For Meralco, it’ll be exciting to see whether or not some of their young pieces can finally make the fabled leap. Especially intriguing is Chris Newsome, who’s emerged as one of the most clutch players in the Bubble. Helping him out has been the resurgent Raymond Almazan, and the exciting backcourt duo of Aaron Black and Baser Amer. Can they build on a solid elimination round by pushing the defending Philippine Cup champions?
For San Miguel, it boils down to this question: can they hold on and continue finding ways to win? Despite losing their two best players, the Beermen have continued to remain excellent, largely thanks to coaching. Coach Leo Austria deserves so much more credit for steering the Beermen to stable waters after losing Terrence Romeo to a shoulder injury. He went back to basics by embracing solid defensive fundamentals and running the San Miguel offense around what they do best. Mo Tautuaa has been their anchor and sprinkled around him has been the usual stable play of the ageless Arwind Santos, clutch Alex Cabagnot, pesky Chris Ross, and of course, the sniping of Marcio Lassiter. Can they keep it up come playoff time?
This will be close, but ultimately, experience will trump potential in this quarterfinals clash. Meralco will certainly have their flashes but the playoffs are a different monster. The Beermen may be dead men walking, but it’s going to take more than a leap to take down the pride of these champions.
Prediction: San Miguel in 1