San Miguel, TNT eye share of lead

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    AFTER a nearly year-long layoff and now playing under unique circumstances, Rain or Shine coach Caloy Garcia is eager to have his team undergo a big test.

    That test will be held today when the Elasto Painters clash with San Miguel Beer in the PBA Philippine Cup bubble at the Angeles University Foundation gym in Angeles City.

    Like the Beermen, winner on opening day last March 8 before the league shut down operations, TNT will gun for its second straight win when it collides with debuting Terrafirma (formerly Columbian) in the other game.

    The Tropang Giga got off to a fine start in the kickoff game of the bubble, riding RR Pogoy’s career-best 45 points and Jayson Castro’s endgame heroics to come from behind and trip Alaska 100-95 just last Sunday.

    TNT coach Bong Ravena insisted his team’s first game left plenty to be desired. “Malayo pa, wala pa kami. I mean, sa level na gusto namin. Siguro wala pa sa kalahati,” he said.

    “Hopefully we can learn from this game and madala namin sa mga next games. So many turnovers and defensive lapses,” added Ravena.

    Terrafirma coach Johnedel Cardel would like nothing more than to catch TNT while it is not yet at its best.

    “We just want to start well and sustain it para magkaroon kami ng better chance of winning,” said Cardel on the eve of the match.

    Garcia wants the same from his charges, who last played as a complete unit Oct. 17 last year and were still trying to gel with each other anew when the league was forced to shut down by the COVID outbreak in March.

    “I just told the players that we made a sacrifice by going to the bubble. I want to repay that sacrifice by trying to utilize all of them, give everybody a chance to play,” said Garcia.

    “Kasi nga matagal na ring lahat hindi nakakalaro. It’s been seven or eight months,” added Garcia. “I just reminded them not to pressure themselves, enjoy the game. Siyempre, importante dito medyo matagal na walang laro baka may gigil silang lahat.”

    That simply would not do for an SMB team which showed up without six-time MVP June Mar Fajardo but still flashed deadly form in a 94-78 shellacking of Magnolia last March 8.

    The mental boost gained by the rest of the field due to Fajardo’s absence is what gnaws at SMB coach Leo Austria most.

    “Without June Mar it gives some confidence du’n sa mga kalaban namin and that’s a big problem,” said Austria. “What I noticed is, they are really eager to play us. They think kaya nilang mag champion.”

    But as Austria himself pointed out, one thing boosting SMB’s chances of bagging a sixth straight title in the conference is its seasoned players and the ample rest they have had since going deep in the playoffs the last five years.

    “Before, iyun ang laging concern sa team, ‘yung rest,” said Austria. “That’s why we’re always struggling in the first few games. This time… I’m banking on the experience of the players.”

    For Garcia, his team featuring four rookies could at least learn some valuable lessons in this game.  “We’re playing the defending champion so sabi ko at least we can gauge ourselves early, see what we can improve on para sa next games,” he said.