Coaches refused to write off the San Miguel Beermen before the start of the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup, and for at least one game, the Beermen showed why.
"The reports of SMB's demise has been greatly exaggerated!! You can't keep a great team down," Barangay Ginebra coach Tim Cone posted on Twitter moments after San Miguel blew out the Magnolia Hotshots in the season opener on Sunday.
Even without the sidelined June Mar Fajardo, the Beermen were still able show why they are still perennial favorites. Five players scored in double-figures and the team shot 48% in a 16-point rout against a Magnolia team that isn't, by any means, a slouch on defense.
Frontcourt fixtures Mo Tautuaa and Arwind Santos appeared ready to shoulder the workload left behind by Fajardo. Tautuaa, awarded the Most Improved Player award before the game, filled the void on offense and looked comfortable, finishing with 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting in 41 minutes.
Tautuaa did a great job against Magnolia's frontcourt, who saw Ian Sangalang struggle (16 points on 6-for-17 shooting, four turnovers) for most of the night.
"I have to commend Mo because it seems a lot of people are thinking that without June Mar, nobody can score inside the paint. But Mo can score inside the paint. And that's not all -- he can play defense too," coach Leo Austria said about Tautuaa.
Tautuaa, who also had 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal, said he embraced the expanded role but continued to work within the flow of the system.
"You know, my brain says it's good, but right now my knees are telling me to get some ice and sit down," Tautuaa said. "You saw me today, I was getting the ball quite often. And coach wants me to produce, you know, right now it's an equal opportunity team. Everyone's touching the ball, everyone's getting it and everyone's moving."
Santos was aggressive on offense early -- especially in the first quarter, where he scored and assisted on San Miguel's first seven points of the game. The 38-year-old star had 18 points and went 4-for-7 from deep, pulled down 15 rebounds and recorded five steals and was a plus-23 in a team-high 43 minutes of action.
Austria added that the team was motivated by the injured June Mar Fajardo's presence on Sunday. Santos agreed.
"We're not thinking that we can do this without June Mar. We're fighting even though he's not here and we're dedicating this to him," he explained. "We're using this as a huge reason to push ourselves, to not be lazy or unmotivated or to think that we can't do it ourselves."
Santos, who won MVP in 2013, acknowledged that his performance could be the start of a journey towards a bigger individual goal this season.
"Pwede ko siyang i-take na challenge para sa sarili ko, para at least i-push ko 'yung sarili ko. Hindi ko man makuha 'yun pero at least, nakakapag-contribute ako sa team namin. Nagiging positive siya. Ako naman, gagawin ko siya, ite-take ko siya," Santos said of a possible MVP bid. "Kagaya ng pamilya ko (sabi nila), 'Targetin mo kaya. Baka may chance pa.' Sinabi nga nila, ako 'yung huling nag-MVP bago si June Mar dire-diretso. So subukan ko, at least namo-motivate ako. Nagiging positive siya sa akin, kaya maganda na rin 'yun."
The guards also did their share, consistently dictating the tempo for San Miguel. Terrence Romeo (19 points) was efficient and made eight of his team-high 17 attempts while handing out 7 assists. Marcio Lassiter (17 points on 7-for-11 shooting, 5 assists) and Alex Cabagnot (10 points, 3-for-12 shooting) were also able to put up their shots as well.
"Those are the coaches' adjustments," said Romeo. "We're just here to fulfill the role that they gave us. Like our game right now, they saw that we needed to play small ball. So we just found a way to find a way and involve everyone."
San Miguel tops Magnolia as the PBA returns
San Miguel Beermen opened their 2020 PBA Philippine Cup campaign with a 94-78 victory against Magnolia Hotshots!
Despite the win, San Miguel still conceded more rebounds (55-42) and could be vulnerable if any of their bigs get into foul trouble.
"We still have a lot of things to fix because we're using only three bigs -- Arwind, and then Russel Escoto and Mo. Thankfully we had foul trouble only over with our guards because we're loaded there," Austria said.
These problems don't diminish the fact that the Beermen can use this win as a blueprint for the rest of the season.
"With this game, those teams will realize that we are not a team that cannot be underestimated. It is a big win, a huge win for us. It could boost our confidence," Austria said.