After the rollercoaster ride that was the Elimination Round, we now head to where the games matter the most. It’s Playoff time, with a championship at stake for the eight remaining teams.
Let’s preview the four matchups for the quarterfinal:
(1) TNT KaTropa vs. (8) Alaska Aces
It’s been a while since the TNT KaTropa ended up with the top seed after the Elimination Round. It’s been a long time coming for this storied franchise and a big reason for that has been the emergence of Terrence Jones.
Jones has been nothing short of legendary for the KaTropa. While he can have bouts of error-filled stretches (forced passes, matador defense), he more than makes up for it with talent that can only be matched by few in the PBA level. He was a legit NBA-level rotation player for a reason. The KaTropa have been huge beneficiaries of his emergence, as they’ve started to perform in the level we expect a team with their roster to be.
This will be a tough challenge for the Aces. They’re a team that’s been stuck in mediocrity for quite some time now and changing imports in the middle of the conference doesn’t help their chances. At the very least, there is one hole they can try to expose versus TNT: the frontline. While Jones is a force, a lot of what makes TNT good are their guards and wings. Their frontline, on the other hand, is thin compared to other teams. If the Aces want a chance in this series, they need to hope Diamon Simpson is at his best. If that doesn’t happen, don’t expect this series to last long.
(2) Northport Batang Pier vs. (7) San Miguel Beermen
After trading away Stanley Pringle to the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, fans criticized the Batang Pier heavily for giving up their franchise player just like that. The package they received, in the eyes of many, was not equal to the value of a Pringle. It could only go down foe the Batang Pier.
Or so they thought. Instead of rolling over and dying, the Batang Pier have surprisingly played better sans Pringle. These Batang Pier have responded to the loss of their superstar. They’ve embraced the role of underdogs and its catapulted them to the second seed.
Their prize? The San Miguel Beermen. These Beermen may have a case as the strongest seventh seed in quite some time. After a weird start to the conference, they’ve started to figure things out after the arrival of Chickenjoy connoisseur and former Washington Wizard Chris McCullough. What McCullough has brought aside from fried chicken in practice, has been plenty of length, bounce, and skill that is a perfect match with June Mar Fajardo. The Beermen are starting to hum. They are the team no one would want to face in the playoffs.
Now here’s Northport in that position with a date with San Miguel. But this shouldn’t be anything new for them. They’re underdogs once more, with more doubters to prove wrong. This could be epic for both teams.
(3) Barangay Ginebra San Miguel vs. (6) Magnolia Hotshots
Manila Clasico has always been a different monster compared to other playoff serieses. There’s plenty of pride involved between these two teams given their rich history against each other. A close series going down the line feels inevitable. But if there’s reason to believe the Barangay has the edge, one need not to look too far.
Justin Brownlee continues to make his mark as arguably this generation’s greatest import. His dominance, at this point, has reached inexplicable levels. It’s not like he’s dominating with athleticism or incredibly impressive skill. He’s played simple basketball, showing there is beauty in simplicity.
Ginebra has followed suit. The arrival of Stanley Pringle has given them an edge they didn’t have among their locals. The Brownlee-Pringle pick and roll continues to be a growing commodity. Those two alone can make Ginebra such an overwhelming favorite.
To count out the Hotshots would be foolish. This team still has one of the deepest rosters in the league, with Ian Sangalang continuing to cement himself as a premier big man of this league. But the team still has questions surrounding them. The addition of Rakeem Christmas this late into the conference is still a head scratcher. He looked a step slow versus TNT, lacking the motor he was known for in Syracuse in the US. Maybe getting himself accustomed to the Philippines will help him moving forward.
Magnolia has to be thankful this is a best of three. They need as much time as possible for Christmas to adjust to the PBA and to the team. If anything but happens, don’t expect this series to be very merry for the Hotshots.
(4) Blackwater Elite vs. (5) Rain or Shine Elasto Painters
Among the four serieses in the quarterfinals, this is the one that feels like a wildcard. There aren’t any overwhelming favorites between these two. No monster imports. No five-time MVPs. Both deep squads hungry to make the jump to contention.
If there is an edge the Elite can back on, it’s their superstar in Bobby Ray Parks Jr. How Parks has emerged in his rookie year has exceeded even the high expectations we’ve had of him. He isn’t just playing well. He’s playing at a pace that could have him winning BPC by the end of this conference. Advancing to the semifinals may further strengthen his case and the depth of the Elite give us plenty of reason to believe that is the case.
The Elasto Painters don’t exactly have a superstar like Parks, but they make up for is by having a more proven roster. They’ve been a common sight in the playoffs and their roster has the type of experience Blackwater doesn’t. It’s spilled over even to their rookies, as Javee Mocon continues to play sneaky good basketball as a rookie forward. He is good. It isn’t just a case of him being surrounded with good teammates, it’s him finding ways to make Rain or Shine better.
This could go anyway. It’s unpredictable given the level of uncertainty there is with both teams. Does Parks continue his ascent as a premier PBA talent? Will Rain or Shine’s depth and experience reign? No one knows. It may very well take us three games to find out.