ESPN5.com previews the four quarterfinal match-ups of the 2019 Commissioner's Cup. Can the San Miguel Beermen overcome a twice-to-beat disadvantage against the surprising NorthPort Batang Pier?
1. How they got here
Not much was expected from the Batang Pier at the start of the Commissioner's Cup. They fielded in the same lineup that got bounced early in the quarterfinals of the Philippine Cup, and their import Prince Ibeh was an unknown quality who didn't boast of any type of basketball pedigree like Terrence Jones, or the PBA experience in Justin Brownlee.
That's what made the Batang Pier's run through the elims so surprising. It all just clicked. Ibeh was a defensive force who terrorized anyone who dared to penetrate in the paint. And whatever he lacked on offense, Sean Anthony, Moala Tautuaa and Robert Bolick brought to the table.
And in the midst of arguably the team's best run in the elims, NorthPort made the most shocking move of the season: a blockbuster trade that sent Stanley Pringle to Barangay Ginebra in exchange for Kevin Ferrer, Jervy Cruz and Sol Meracdo. And though there were many who criticized the trade, the trio fit like a glove. Particularly Ferrer, who is looking more and more like a breakout star under his former college coach.
Despite the new pieces, the Batang Pier held strong, wrapping up the twice to beat advantage with a game to spare, for the first time in franchise history.
The Beermen's path to the playoffs wasn't as easy.
If no one expected NorthPort's success, it was the same thing for San Miguel's struggles. After all, they too had the same roster ready to roll, save for Terrence Romeo who missed majority of the elims with an injury. Former Best Import of the Conference Charles Rhodes was also back to help the Beermen make another championship run.
But something just didn't work for SMB, who at one point was mired near the bottom of the standings with a 2-5 record. Rhodes was getting his numbers, but the rest of the team looked stuck in mud, particularly Fajardo who was barely getting any touches and shots at the basket.
Faced with this kind of situation, San Miguel opted to pull the trigger on the only move they could do, and brought in new import Chris McCullough to replace Rhodes. It paid immediate dividends, as McCullough brought in another shooter to space the floor for June Mar inside. San Miguel racked up three straight wins to climb to 5-5, though a loss in their final game to Meralco dropped them into a three-way tie with Magnolia and Rain or Shine, with the Beermen having the lowest quotient. Now they are facing a must-win situation, against one of the most consistent and balanced teams in the league.
2. NorthPort can win this series because...
The Batang Pier's vastly improved defense is for real. They give up the second fewest points per game with only 91.5 per contest, on only 40% from the field, even though they play at one of the fastest paces in the league. This has been the hallmark of the team's vast improvement this conference.
They have the personnel to matchup with the Beermen. While it's a given that June Mar is basically unstoppable in the post, Tautuaa and Ibeh can take turns helping out on Fajardo to soften him up. Big Mo is also a versatile enough defender that he can hang with McCullough or switch out on their shooters if necessary. Mercado and Ferrer bring defensive versatility and their championship poise.
3. San Miguel can win this series because...
They still employ June Mar Fajardo, and they're peaking at the right time. With McCullough's ability to scorer from anywhere on the floor, particularly on the perimeter, the Beermen have a supercharged version of their scheme where they space the floor and allow Fajardo to go to work.
Though they've looked out of sorts at times this conference, it's too difficult to imagine the Beermen out of it for long. As they've done for the most part this entire reign under Coach Leo Austria, they will find a way.
4. Key player for both sides
For Northport, it's Kevin Ferrer. In a short span of time, he's proving that he can be more than just a role player in the PBA. He's a knockdown shooter that has burned the nets from downtown, and has guarded everyone from imports to point guards. He will need to have a major role, seeing as he's one of the few players on the team that has experienced going all the way to the championship and facing the Beermen.
For San Miguel, Terrence Romeo. What a strange twist of fate that Romeo's old team, with which he crafted his legacy as one of the best scorers in the league, stands in his way. Terrence has been trying to find his way back to the lineup after an assortment of injuries, and has provided some juice to a bench squad that struggled to be productive despite Christian Standhardinger a fixture in the second unit. Romeo provides a spark and another weapon that should come in handy to try and breakdown this terrific Batang Pier defense.
How many times have we seen the 7th seed be treated as the favorites against the 2nd seed with twice to beat advantage? Not often, but that's the scenario between NorthPort and San Miguel in this series.
Expect the Batang Pier to treat Game 1 as if they're the ones in a do-or-die game. They know that giving the Beermen any sort of confidence will lead to the red and black flying death machine, which has one championship after championship.
However, the Beermen loom as the favorites because of their experience, personnel, and the potentially impactful McCullough. The Batang Pier blew out San Miguel in their elims matchup, but those were under completely different situations and with different personnel. San Miguel, particularly in the playoffs, should be much more dangerous. That's why they ultimately will prevail against NorthPort to advance to the semis.