San Miguel was up three, 81-78, with 3:17 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the PBA Commissioner's Cup finals. June Mar Fajardo went on the run after a defensive stop, ready to receive a pass from Chris Ross. Fajardo caught it perfectly, and went up for what would be a sure two points.
In Fajardo's brilliant career, he has been known for many offensive performances. He has shown moves in the paint never before displayed by a player of his size. His ability to score in different ways with the softest touch, despite two or three defenders trying to slow him down, has made him a legendary player in the PBA.
On this night, Fajardo had other plans. Instead of the usual gentle layup, Fajardo elevated for a thunderous jam over the outstretched arms of Scottie Thompson, who dared to get in his way. Perhaps Thompson was hoping that he could catch Fajardo's usual tap-board layup. Wrong move.
Fajardo's throwdown ignited the Beermen and their fans, while silencing the throngs of Ginebra fans hoping for a series lead. Their lead was pushed to five points, and in a defensive struggle, it looked near unbeatable. With 3:17 left, San Miguel was looking good heading into Game 6.
Little did they know that Fajardo's jam would be the final points they would score the rest of the game.
Ginebra's resiliency has defined them this Commissioner's Cup. When they were down and out early this conference, Justin Brownlee helped them salvage their conference and make a late run to the playoffs. When they faced the specter of being down 3-1 to the defending champions, Ginebra put together an absolutely dominating Game 4 victory to win by 30 points. And it happened again in Game 5. Down by five points with nothing falling on offense, they gutted out the win behind the brilliance and chaos created by Thompson.
Ginebra has found ways to persevere. Now it is San Miguel's turn to be tested.
For all of the success that the Beermen have tasted in the Leo Austria era, it has not come without adversity. They've been pushed to a Game 7 twice by Alaska -- the second one being down 0-3 before a "Beeracle" saved their campaign. The Commissioner's Cup has not been kind to them before their breakthrough title last year. They are no strangers to challenges, and playing catch-up.
In Game 6, they will have to take on their toughest challenge yet. A disciplined, hungry Ginebra squad holds the advantage for the second time this finals series. Both squads are exhausted, physically. The challenge facing San Miguel and Ginebra are different: The champions are looking to survive, while the challengers hope to end things.
So much is at stake tonight. Coach Leo Austria's undefeated 6-0 record in the finals stands as one of the best winning streaks in PBA history. It is in jeopardy in a major way, because of the challenge brought forward by Brownlee, Thompson and company. They have shown that they have the power to produce miracles. Now, they need a major one to send this series to a Game 7.
It will not be easy. As is always the case when going up against Ginebra, the crowd will be against them. They face one of the best closers in the game in Brownlee, an aggressive and determined LA Tenorio, a rejuvenated Greg Slaughter, and an improving Japeth Aguilar. This will be a huge test for San Miguel.
But the team can rest in the knowledge that they can play better. Fajardo was silent in the first half of Game 4, before turning it on and flashing his MVP form in Game 5. Alex Cabagnot was a non-factor. So was Chris Ross as he laid it out on the line on the other end trying to stop Brownlee's offense. Lassiter can play better. So can Santos.
There is a level that they can get to, where they become an unguardable, unbeatable wrecking ball of destruction. The question facing them right now is whether they can get there, with Ginebra determined to stop them at every instance. We finally got our first close game of the series, and it was a low scoring affair, favoring Ginebra. Can San Miguel push the transition and scoring further to make it into a scoring match?
These are all questions that will be answered come tip-off. Ginebra is going for the Commissioner's Cup title, their first in 21 years. The Beermen will play for their lives and face a supreme mental challenge. The stakes have never been higher.