This article originally appeared in SLAM #170
How Alaska dominated the PBA Commissioner’s Cup from the very start until the very end.
By Chuck Araneta
It was Alaska against Ginebra in the Finals again. We tried to relive all the memories of that rivalry back in the 90s. We loaded up those old, grainy Youtube clips featuring the Alaska Milkmen going head to head with the Gordon’s Gin Boars.
We tried to remember what it felt like to witness these two teams battle each other back in ’97. But the little details may have faded from our memories. That’s why having these two squads back in the Finals again after 16 long years felt so special. It was the continuation of a great rivalry that had been dormant for far too long. It was the opportunity to see both squads try to win it all against each other again, after climbing two very different mountains the entire conference.
It was also special, because no one expected these two teams to barge into the Finals together.
The Alaska Aces finished the elimination round at the top of the standings. It’s been so long since that happened that you almost expect Jojo Lastimosa or Jeffrey Cariaso in a jersey out there. But despite their strong showing, they faced a brick wall versus San Mig Coffee. They had to summon everything they had emotionally and physically to overcome Denzel Bowles, the Mixers and Alaska icon, Head Coach Tim Cone. It wasn’t easy, but after 4 grueling games, they booked their ticket to the Finals.
Ginebra took a different route to the finals. They finished the elimination round in seventh place. Seventh place. Even worse, they lost superstar and surefire Best Player of the Conference Mark Caguioa midway through the elims. But behind herculean performances by LA Tenorio and by climbing on the broad back of replacement import Vernon Macklin, Ginebra overcame a twice to beat disadvantage and took down Rain or Shine. Their encore was even better: Behind 28 points from Tenorio in the deciding Game 5, Ginebra made history as the lowest seed ever to make the finals by beating Talk N’ Text.
Another chapter that took longer to make than Sugarfree’s first album was finally being written. It was about time. Sa wakas.
The lights always shine brighter during the PBA Finals. For some, it may be glaring. For others, it’s an opportunity to enjoy the moment.
As players were introduced one by one before tipoff, Alaska players came walking out with stony faces and very few chest-bumps and bro-hugs. Moments later, they watched Ginebra’s introduction and heard the thunderous ovation from Ginebra’s fans. Mark Caguioa took the floor looking spry and ready to roll, the Ginebra faithful took hold of the belief that something special was going to happen tonight. The only problem was that the Aces were watching all of this, and they felt the exact same way.
Alaska unleashed a 14-0 run to start the series. With contributions from Jvee Casio, Tony Dela Cruz, Robert Dozier and Cyrus Baguio, the Aces left Ginebra and their fans in total shock. The key to the overwhelming run was very simple, according to Aces starting point guard Jvee Casio: “Team defense namin. Not really one-on-one vs LA, it’s five guys against him or Vernon Macklin. We have rotations, early help or Robert Dozier trying to intimidate the shot.” By the time that Macklin was able to score on a put-back with 5:54 left in the first, the Aces had seized total control of the entire game.
And then Calvin Abueva subbed in. Abueva promptly stole the ball from former Alaska forward Mac Baracael at half-court. Calvin sprinted with the ball and as soon as he saw the backboard within range, he launched a shot off the glass. Baracael, who chased Abueva step for step, walloped Abueva to prevent him from scoring. The ball went in. Running back, Abueva took his thumb, slit it across his throat. Then, he delivered a thumbs-down gesture, Gladiator-style, for everyone to see.
After a few more shots made by RJ Jazul, the score at the end of the first quarter was 28-6, Alaska.
When disaster strikes, coaches look for miracles. So Ginebra Head Coach Alfrancis Chua took a huge risk by putting in Mark Caguioa. On the other side, Abueva eyed Caguioa hungrily, even lustily. After punishing James Yap and the Mixers in their highly physical duel during the Semis, Abueva seemed ready to do the same against Caguioa. During Caguioa’s stint on the floor, Abueva hounded him into quick fouls and turnovers, never allowing him to get into any sort of rhythm.
With Caguioa out of the equation, Chua was left searching for more miracles. Various players who hadn’t seen minutes were thrown out on the floor. Elmer Espiritu, Rico Maierhofer, Rob Labagala and Willie Wilson all played. None of these insertions worked. Ginebra’s mini-runs were all squashed by Alaska. Abueva repeatedly placed his index finger over his mouth to hush the pro-Ginebra crowd.
Alaska won 87-70, gained a 1-0 advantage. More importantly, the Aces delivered a statement. They were coming for Barangay Ginebra.
A win in the PBA Finals whether by seventeen points, seven or even seventy all mean the same thing: it’s just a one game advantage. For as dominant as Alaska looked in Game 1, Barangay Ginebra was undeterred. In interviews, Caguioa conjured up images of local heroes who rose to the challenge after being beaten to a pulp in the beginning of movies. Slowly but surely, this was becoming a reality for Ginebra: With Caguioa operating at less than one hundred percent and Macklin being slowed by a hip injury, Ginebra was going to need to stick together.
Tenorio has been a champion in every level he’s played in. On this night, Tenorio, MVP of the 2012 Jones Cup, made sure that Alaska wouldn’t launch unanswered runs to start the game. His first shot was a three-point make. His second stat was an assist that led to a Baracael basket. It sent Ginebra fans into delirium. Ginebra finally tasted their first lead of the series.
As the PBA Playoffs rolled along, Alaska’s choking defense featured a simple formula: contain penetration and inside scoring. In a sense, Alaska was allowing perimeter shots by design. They were giving teams the chance to shoot lower percentage shots.
In Game 2, Ginebra was finally making Alaska pay. You know what they say about great players: you can’t keep them down. Behind the efforts of Tenorio, Ginebra surged forward with an 11-4 lead. Ginebra fans finally had a reason to cheer.
Other teams might have folded, and understandably so. But the Alaska Aces were undeterred. “Alam namin yung capabilities nila,” Casio says. “What we did was stick to the gameplan. We tried to play defense all throughout.”
Slowly but surely, they began to chip away at that lead behind baskets by Jazul and Baguio. No lead would be safe against the Aces.
It was becoming very clear that these two teams couldn’t be more different. The Aces took pleasure in making games uncomfortable for their opponents with a maniacal defensive philosophy.
Ginebra, on the other hand, chose to wear opponents down by speeding the game up and attacking from the outside. With every Tenorio trey, there were baskets inside by Sonny Thoss and Robert Dozier. Alaska still finished the first quarter with the lead, 25-22.
That first quarter was the best punch Ginebra would throw. Unfortunately, it would also be their last. To beat the Aces, it would take a championship-level of focus, discipline and consistency. Effort without output won’t get it done. And so Alaska’s lead ballooned. The Aces went up 17 at the half, and upped it to 18 at the end of the third. Alaska cut up the Barangay defense with ease, and telegraphed Ginebra’s plays one to two passes before it was even initiated. Without Caguioa to provide a different look, the Aces suffocated the Ginebra offense initiated by Tenorio.
No miracle comeback this time for Ginebra. They only witnessed this harsh reality: Alaska won, 104-90. The end was rapidly drawing nearer.
“Naisip ko that we have to close this series out now. Pag nabigyan pa ng confidence ang Ginebra, baka makabalik pa.”- Jvee Casio
By being up 2-0, only the Rapture could prevent Alaska from winning their first championship since 2010. Now, the question wasn’t “if” they could do it, rather “when” they could end this.
Ginebra didn’t see it that way. The Big Dome was packed to the rafters. Even knowing that Ginebra would need a huge effort to win Game 3, let alone the entire series, their fans showed no fear. In their heart of hearts, there was no other way this story could end without Ginebra winning it all. That fatalistic belief allowed them to believe that this series was still up for grabs.
They would never say die. And as Game 3 rolled along, Barangay Ginebra showed they would not go quietly into Cubao X with their heads down and mourn what could have one of the greatest stories ever told. Behind Tenorio, their newly crowned Best Player of the Conference, Ginebra launched a last stand in the first half. Caguioa, who delivered his best showing the entire season, and Chris Ellis helped out. Finally, Ginebra seemed to have figured it out leading at the half for the first time, 43-40.
If Alaska was at all worried about going to the dugout trailing for the first time, it didn’t show at all.
”Yung first half gigil kami,” Casio remembers. “We wanted to close out the team so we tried very hard to do it right away. At halftime, Coach learned from what happened to us last conference. Coach reminded us to calm down. We just have to stay disciplined. If we’re not making outside shots, let’s just bring it inside.”
Throughout the season, whether leading by a huge margin or facing a big deficit, the blank and cold expressions on the Aces’ faces masked their true intentions. They were on a march to redemption. So the Alaska players on the floor listened.
And they responded.
What happened to that precious Ginebra lead? Alaska erased it midway through the third quarter. Every Ginebra surge was answered by timely baskets from the Aces. No matter how many times Ginebra tried to pull away, the Aces would push right back. At the end of the third quarter, all that separated Ginebra from Alaska was a 72-71 advantage.
Ginebra was ahead by one solitary point. The Aces were in prime position to win this game. But no one expected them to end the series in such a convincing way.
In a span of eight minutes, Alaska dashed all hopes of a Ginebra upset by administering a backbreaking 24-2 run. Jvee Casio scored with ease and even scored on a four-point play that left Abueva howling in delight. And with the focus on the shooters, Thoss made life miserable for the frontcourt of Ginebra, as he overcame a stiff back injury to dominate in the paint.
On the other side, the combination of fatigue and injuries to Ginebra’s key players proved too much to overcome. “I think they were tired,” Casio believes. “They went through a lot this conference. We stuck to what we did best all throughout the season. We really wanted this badly.”
With meaningless minutes left in the game, Chua raised the white flag and cleared his bench. He could only watch the Aces do the same, as they celebrated, hugged and danced on the sidelines as time ran out.
When the horn sounded, the Aces had fulfilled all their potential with a 104-80 victory. They had exorcised all the burdens weighing them down of glory years past. Thoss was adjudged Finals MVP after a dominating effort in the paint, with averages of 14 points and 10 rebounds. Dozier celebrated his Best Import of the Conference win by clearly outplaying Macklin. Abueva celebrated being champion again in his first year. The rest of the Aces partied as balloons fell from the rafters: an all-too familiar sight back in the 90’s.
At last they were champions again.
Casio is in a good place right now. Surrounded by family and friends celebrating his first championship in the PBA, Casio is preparing for a team trip to Disneyland in July. In fact, the other Aces have taken some much needed time off to focus on life beyond basketball. “Mga iba nag-bakasyon na rin,” he shares. “Kanya-kanyang probinsya o beach.”
More importantly, Jvee’s wedding preps are in full swing. As he puts it, “May mga preparations pa na kailangan gawin.” As someone who is going through the same thing, believe me when I say this takes a June Mar Fajardo-sized amount of focus.
The Aces will need all the rest they can get. When the Governor’s Cup unfolds, the Aces will finally be seen as one of roadblocks that the other nine squads will have to go through.
“Coming from last season, we wanted to prove that we can bounce back and we belong to the top group,” Casio states. “As players, we wanted to belong. Alaska has always strived to do it the right way. Masaya to do it the right way, and to be champions as well.”