Five Storylines For The San Miguel Beermen-Meralco Bolts Philippine Cup Finals

This is the first time in PBA history that the Beermen and the Bolts will meet in a PBA finals series.

For the first time in PBA history, the San Miguel Beermen and Meralco Bolts will be meeting in a finals This 2024 Bingo Plus Philippine Cup Finals match-up was sealed last May 31 after the Bolts toppled the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings, 78-69, in Game 7 of their semifinals series. The Beermen had earlier booked their finals slot after a sweep of the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters much earlier.

Here are five storylines that will define this series.

Shared history

Interestingly, both teams trace their roots to the old Manila Inter-Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA), when they were known as the Meralco Reddy Kilowatts and the San Miguel Braves. They never faced off, though, in a championship series. While Meralco was forced to disband their team in 1972 following the declaration of Martial Law, San Miguel went on to become a founding member of the PBA in 1975 and today is the league’s only remaining original franchise.

Additionally, the man who led the Beermen to their only grand slam crown in 1989, Norman Black, coached the Bolts for nine seasons.

SMB guard Chris Ross was part of Meralco’s original team and played in the Bolts’ very first PBA game.

“It’s cool to see that I played in their first game in the PBA, that I’ll play against them in their first game in an All-Filipino Finals,” Ross said during the pre-finals press conference. “I know what it means to them. It’s just a cool feeling. I feel like Meralco gave me a chance to show that I can play in the PBA.

“My rookie year was kind of up and down. When I got traded over there to Sta. Lucia, which eventually became Meralco, they kind of gave me the ball and said, ‘Do your thing.’ I’m forever grateful for them for giving me the opportunity to show what I can do. I’m happy where I’m at now. I’m ready to compete against these guys.”

Don Trollano, Raymond Almazan and Jericho Cruz all won a title together with Rain or Shine in 2016. (PBA Media Bureau)

Finally, Don Trollano and Jericho Cruz of the Beermen and Raymond Almazan of the Bolts were all teammates in the Elasto Painters team that won the 2016 Commissioner’s Cup title. It was an experience that forged a bond among them forever.

Iyong samahan namin ni Raymond, hindi mawawala iyan,” Cruz said. “Kapag may out-of-town (game) kami, kami ang laging rooomates. Marami kaming ginawang kalokohan. At the same time, para ko na siyang kapatid.

“Excited ako to play against him kasi alam naman natin kung anong kaya niyang gawin sa court. Iyong defensive mindset niya. Siyempre ako, gusto kong manalo against him.”

Ang Rain or Shine group namin, that was so special,” Trollano said. “Last championship iyon ng independent team.

Bago mag-Game 7, nag message sa akin si Raymond sa Instagram. Sabi niya, ‘Oy, hintayin niyo ako sa finals.’ So sabi ko, ‘Sige bilisan niyo.’ So eventually, nandito na nga sila sa finals. I’m happy for him. I’m ready to win.”

Destiny or Dynasty?

The Beermen have been a juggernaut this conference, having lost just twice, and very nearly swept the elimination round. The team that denied them an elims sweep? The Bolts.

Neither coach, though, is reading too much into that game.

“At the time, it was a must-win for us,” Meralco coach Luigi Trillo said. “So, we needed to win. Obviously, San Miguel was undefeated, 10-0. They were already assured of number one. So, you could read that they were in already. You could read also that they were going for 11-0. But that’s the past.

“I’ve been to a lot of games already sa PBA na alam namin that one game won’t define a series. But, one thing I noticed with them is they’re gonna be ready, they’re gonna be experienced, they’re well-coached.”

Beermen coach Jorge Gallent agrees.

“Like what Coach Luigi said, their backs were on the wall because if they lost that game, they would not, I think, make it to the playoffs. So, they really played hard.

“And we also really played hard to try to get the sweep, but it didn’t happen. So, it’s just the past. It’s done. We’ve learned from our mistakes in that game. And we just have to get better with it.”

A title win by SMB would give them a league record 30th championship and would solidify their claim as the most successful team in Philippine sports history.

In contrast, the Bolts are playing in their first-ever PBA Philippine Cup Finals and are seeking their first PBA crown since joining in 2010. They came very close to missing the playoffs, but recovered just in time to book the third seed. After sweeping the NLEX Road Warriors in the quarterfinals, they rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the semifinals to upset crowd favorites Barangay Ginebra. A win over the Beermen would be a monumental achievement and complete their Cinderella run.

Who Guards JMF?

It goes without saying that Meralco’s defensive schemes will center around containing June Mar Fajardo, the reigning seven-time MVP who is on pace to win an eighth. The Bolts will have to rely on veterans Raymond Almazan, Norbert Torres and Kyle Pascual, plus rookie Brandon Bates.

“A lot of preparation,” was Bates’ answer when asked what goes into guarding JMF. “You have to really prepare your body. I’m probably 50 kilos soaking wet. So, a lot of eating, a lot of recovery.”

Almazan says it’s virtually impossible to shut down Fajardo.

Lagi kong sinasabi sa interview, hindi mo ma-istop si June Mar. Slow down mo lang. And not all June Mar itong team na ito. Loaded talaga. Sa aming mga bigs talaga, ang trabaho namin is, depensahan si June Mar.”

Marquee Gilas Match-Up: Newsome vs. Perez

One intriguing match-up is at the guard position, where Gilas Pilipinas teammates Chris Newsome and CJ Perez are on a collision course. It will be a fascinating duel between one of the league’s most prolific scorers in Perez and an ultra-elite defender in Newsome.

“CJ is one of the most fierce competitors that I’ve ever played against,” said Newsome. “I know him really well. CJ is definitely one of the best that we have in this league as far as being aggressive, attacking the basket, having him score on multiple levels. At the basket, mid-range and he can shoot the three. I’m just excited to go out there and it’s going to feel a little bit like Gilas practice a little bit because sometimes we’re not on the same team and I have to guard him a full day of practice.

“It’s definitely a good challenge for me. You know me, I’m a defensive guy and I love challenges whenever it comes to trying to make it hard for my opponent. I’m not saying that I’ll be able to stop him but my job is just to make it as difficult as possible.”

Perez also has enormous respect for Newsome.

Si ‘New’ parang kabisado na niya ako. I’m just going to play within the system. Tapos kung ano ang depensa, paghahandaan ko. Kilala natin si ‘New’. Magaling talaga siya dumepensa. Sa Gilas, siya ang dumedepensa sa best players ng kabilang teams.

Individual Legacies

Another championship for San Miguel would boost Fajardo’s bid for a record eighth MVP, which would be double that of the two legends tied for second – Ramon Fernandez and Alvin Patrimonio. It would also give more weight for his case as the league’s greatest of all time.

“Humble guy, probably GOAT of the PBA,” Trillo said about Fajardo. “You could argue it’s him or Ramon Fernandez, right?”

Additionally, Ross, Fajardo and Marcio Lassiter will all be gunning for their 11th PBA title, which would move them into a tie with Rafi Reavis and Cris Bolado. Only 11 players have won more.

“It’s a blessing,” Ross said. :I’ve been in the league 15 years now. It took me until my sixth or seventh just to get to the finals. I know how hard it is to get there, and people think it’s easy. But it’s definitely hard. Looking back now, on my 10 championships and going for my 11th, just looking forward to taking advantage of our situation and try to win it.”

“Honestly it’s just more of grateful and thankful for the opportunity,” Lassiter added. “Just to stay healthy and playing at a high level. I have to thank my great teammates for trusting me. Likewise, I trust them and the coaching staff. Without them, I wouldn’t be here and continue to thank them for that.”

Banner Image from PBA Media Bureau.

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