Tried and Tested: The Beermen have to get back to the basics to survive

Ever since Coach Leo Austria was appointed as head coach of the San Miguel Beermen, he’s preached doing the basics to his team. It’s difficult to embrace fundamentals as a seasoned professional, especially with the caliber of talent San Miguel has. But for Coach Leo, this was a necessity. No more fancy fancy. Keeping it simple was of utmost importance.

In a phrase, Coach Leo has made the team embrace the following: San Miguel’s strength is June Mar Fajardo. Fajardo’s strength is San Miguel. It’s a very simplistic way of looking at it, but it holds plenty of merit.

Fajardo is the best player in the league and maybe in league history. His sheer gravity will make life easier for his teammates. But on the other hand, his teammates are no slouches either. Since defenses will be left scrambling on who to guard, it opens up space for the Kraken to operate down low.

Many have doubted this formula, but it’s tried and tested. Austria has won six rings in a span of four years, with four of those coming from the Philippine Cup. Most importantly, this group has established themselves as one of the best in league history.

Late in Game 5 of the Philippine Cup Finals the Beermen looked like they were going to test this simple formula once again. The game was tied 86 with less than 40 seconds left of the clock. Out of a timeout, the Beermen formed themselves in a formation the league has become all too familiar with. Fajardo positioned himself in the low block — in the right block in this instance — while four shooters surrounded him across the half court. Classic San Miguel. Six rings. Tried and tested.

After the initial inbound pass, Chris Ross immediately dumped the ball to Fajardo on the right block. As Ian Sangalang went over for a soft double, the Kraken immediately kicked it out to Arwind Santos at the top of the key.

Tried and tested.

Instead of taking the open shot, Santos swung it to Ross back to the right wing. It was an understandable play. The opportunity to re-post to Fajardo was still there. So naturally, Ross dumped it inside once more.

Deja vu. Soft double by Ian. Fajardo kickout to Santos.

Tried and tested.

Yet once again, Santos got cute and opted to swing the ball to Ross at the right wing. San Miguel looked confused.

Their tried and tested formula looked like it was failing. Ross tried to give it to Fajardo one last time, but the flow was off and it hard for the offense to get anywhere. The rest is history. San Miguel failed to get a shot off and then Mark Barroca proceeded to break their hearts the next possession. Which then brings us to this question:

Does San Miguel’s tried and tested formula still work?

Trust has been one of the key components of this series for San Miguel. For most of its run, the Beermen have looked close to flawless. They’ve only lost once in their seven Finals run, with Ginebra needing an otherworldly Justin Brownlee to tip the scales their way.

Yet suddenly, a Hotshots team with a similar roster as last season’s was giving them a hard time. Maybe this tried and tested formula was starting to become outdated.

Here are the the three losses of San Miguel this series:

Game 1: San Miguel 94, Magnolia 99
Game 3: San Miguel 82, Magnolia 86
Game 5: San Miguel 86, Magnolia 88

The thing is, San Miguel isn’t getting blown out of the water by the Hotshots. All three losses have been close games. Close losses are often because of little mistakes that happen either in the clutch, or a trend that bites them in the butt once the final buzzer sounds. During Games 1 and 3, it was rebounding and shooting too much three-pointers that haunted them.

The offensive flow and rebounding of San Miguel has since then been solved. From a basketball point of view, when locked in and confident, they’ve been an unstoppable force. That’s the problem though. They haven’t always been locked in. Confidence, for some weird reason, has been an issue at times this series. The former showed during the first half. The latter, on the other hand, reared its ugly head when Santos hesitated to shoot, twice, with the game on the line.

Austria’s formula continues to be reliable. It is still, by all accounts, tried and tested. But the formula’s theory is pointless if this isn’t put properly into practice.

Execution has two important parts: materials and mental fortitude. The Beermen have the tools, no doubt about it. It all boils with how they respond mentally to the challenge of winning two games to keep their streak of championships in the Philippine Cup alive.

The thought of this being possibly the One Last Ride of this core group is inevitable. Santos is already 37 years old, while Alex Cabagnot is 36. Father Time is undefeated. It will erode the skills of the (real) Spider-Man and the Crunchman. In fact, it may be something that’s already in the heads of the team itself.

Right now though, they have to let that go. That can’t be something that hinders the execution of the team on the court. There’s still a championship to be won. And if this does end up being the last ride of its core, why not end it with a fifth straight Philippine Cup championship? Why not start another attempt at the elusive Grand Slam?

Getting there isn’t complicated. The writing is on the wall. All they have to do is to trust that formula, as well as each other.

Tried and tested.