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By Olmin Leyba
TWO title-hungry teams are intent on staying on their paths to the Holy Grail. One is bent on reclaiming lost glory. Another is firm about keeping its winning tradition in the import-spiced conference.
With these, the last four squads standing in the Season 46 Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Governors’ Cup playoffs press for their respective bids as the best-of-five semifinals series kicks off on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena.
Meralco, hunting for a breakthrough after posting runner-up finishes in the 2016, 2017 and 2019 Governors’ Cup, and Magnolia, the 2018 champion who bungled succeeding attempts in the 2019 and 2021 Philippine Cup, clash for a pivotal head start at 3 p.m.
NLEX, only on its second time to reach this deep stage in franchise history, and Barangay Ginebra, winner of three of the last four Governors’ Cup staging, fire the opening salvo in their matchup at 6 p.m.
Top seed Magnolia and No. 4 Meralco set a Final Four duel after making short work of lower-seeded rivals, No. 8 Phoenix and No. 5 San Miguel Beer, respectively last Friday.
“This is going to be a dogfight,” said Hotshots coach Chito Victolero of their showdown, a rematch of the last All-Filipino semis in Bacolor that they won in six games. “Both are defensive-minded teams, so we expect a tough, grind out series.”
Meralco counterpart Norman Black described Magnolia as a powerhouse but expressed confidence his charges are up to the task.
“They’re pretty much a powerhouse right now and their import (Mike Harris) is probably right up there with the top imports of the league,” said Mr. Black, whose team is pinning its hopes on Tony Bishop instead of regular reinforcement Allen Durham. “We’re not a powerhouse like them, but I believe we can beat any team on any night.”
While NLEX mentor Yeng Guiao claimed the underdog tag for his “greener” troops, Ginebra’s Tim Cone believes the Road Warriors are as tough as they come.
“It’s always difficult playing coach Yeng’s teams in the playoffs. They play tough physical basketball for 48 minutes and you can never catch your breath. We’ll have to be mentally tough to match up to them,” said Mr. Cone, whose sixth-ranked crew advanced after toppling twice-to-beat No. 3 TnT.
For Mr. Guiao, the major threats they have to address against crowd darling Ginebra come from the dependable Justin Brownlee, the do-it-all Scottie Thompson and the twin tower combo of Christian Standhardinger and Japeth Aguilar.
“We’ll have to find the proper matchup for Scottie and their resident Best Import Justin Brownlee. Plus, I think they’re gaining chemistry with Japeth and Christian. They’re learning how to play together and it becomes a problem for any team that plays them,” he said.
Notes: The semifinal opening twin-bill marks the PBA’s awaited return to the MOA Arena after two years. Last time the pro league tipped off at the Pasay venue was Jan. 17, 2020 for Game 5 of the 2019 Governors’ Cup finals, where Ginebra beat Meralco, 105-93, to clinch the crown. The PBA initially scheduled play at the MOA last January before the spike in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases forced the suspension of games.