February 24, 2017, 2:38 am
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This one’s still anybody’s game

HIS team may have stopped TNT KaTropa’s momentum with a big win but San Miguel Beer coach Leo Austria knows the Texters remain a potent and formidable opponent. 

“We cannot let our guard down against a powerhouse team like TNT,” Austria said. “Napatunayan na nilang kaya nilang bumangon from a loss in a big way and now they have just been beaten again.”

Austria has more than a bit of trepidation when SMB and TNT collide anew tonight in what should be a crucial game in their PBA Philippine Cup semifinals series at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

The best-of-seven series is tied at two games apiece after the Beermen scored a cruising 97-86 victory last Tuesday and Texters coach Nash Racela said only a little tinkering is needed for his charges to get back into the groove.

“(We) just need to make counter adjustments for Game 5,” said Racela. “(Be) a little more aggressive on defense and (have) a little more confidence on our shots.”

Austria can only hope his team’s own preparations would be enough for the remainder of the duel, which he termed both as a “chess match” and one of “adjustments.” 

“Naghahanap sila ng advantage, nagti-three bigs sila and then a small lineup, pero hindi kami kumagat sa kanilang trap. We have to play our game. Tingin ko iyun ang nangyari ngayon,” Austria said after Game 4.

“But I know this is a game of adjustments, na every time na nananalo ka pag-iisipan ka ng kalaban. Hihimay-himayin iyung (game) tape, titingnan kung saan sila natalo, kung saan sila mahina, saan sila malakas at kung ano ginawa naming changes o adjustments.”

Like Racela, Austria believes the players’ mind-set is the key.

“If we could match their intensity and effort then we could stay in the game and probably we would win and it happened tonight,” said Austria. “Last two games very low ang energy namin.”

Typifying SMB’s resolve after losses in Games 2 and 3 was Chris Ross, known more as a stopper who exploded for a career-high 31 points, almost 25 above his average. He had a game-high five triples to go with five rebounds and as many assists.

Ross also did his part on the defensive end, anchoring the defense on TNT star Jayson Castro, who scored 13 points but shot just 5-for-17 from the field, including 0-for-5 from beyond the arc.

“I always look at it on defense, trying to limit Jayson,” said Ross. “He’s been carving us up, averaging a double-double, so I just really look at the defense, try to make it tough on Jayson because he’s what makes them go.

“Offense is just a plus, as long as I can try to limit Jayson then I’m happy with that,” added Ross.

The all-around effort was not lost on Austria. “Gusto niyang ipanalo. I have to appreciate that guy dahil he was really focused on this game,” he said.

“Nagulat ako and happy na pumapasok ang kanyang mga tira, especially sa three-point area,” added Austria. “But not only that, nagpe-penetrate, nag-a-assist, dumi-defend. Do-it-all siya.” 

Also making his own adjustments was SMB center June Mar Fajardo, who wound up with 15 points and as many rebounds after staying away from the fouls that plagued him in a 92-98 loss in Game 3.

For the fourth straight game, TNT’s bench outscored its SMB counterparts 44-20, thanks largely to Larry Fonacier’s team-high 15 and Kelly Williams’ 10.

But Gabby Espinas and RR Garcia, who missed Game 3 due to flu, did their share and wound up with 10 and eight points, respectively. 

Espinas hit two triples and Garcia added five to complement Ross’ eight markers in the second quarter where SMB took control by outscoring TNT 26-13 for a 44-32 spread at the turn.

With Ross scattering 18 of his points while accounting for three of the Beermen’s five triples in the third period, SMB’s lead ballooned to as many as 22 points thrice and went into the final 12 minutes with a big 76-58 advantage.

The Texters managed to trim the deficit to nine, the last at 84-93, but each time the defending champions had a ready answer.

Austria can’t shake off the queasy feelings, however.

“Next game is even dahil because both are powerhouse teams. Maybe may advantage kami because of our starters but TNT... ang laki ng respeto ko sa kanila,” said Austria. 

“Actually, takot ako sa kanila dahil alam nila kung paano kami talunin. I have to give credit to coach Nash dahil maganda ang ginagawa niya, hinahanap niya ang weakness namin.

“We will try our best dahil imagine they beat us two in a row and they need two games to win the series. Capable lahat, that’s why I think we have a good series... but you can never know what will happen. Both teams, they want to show their skills and talent.”
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