Once again, cage fanatics were treated to loads and loads of sizzling action this week. From the exciting new line-ups in the NBA, to the mad rush among PBA teams to join the last bus to the playoffs, to the thrill-a-minute battles that characterized the finals in both the NCAA and UAAP collegiate wars, and finally, to the preparations to defend the cage crown in the incoming Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), Pinoy basketball diehards have had frenetic non-stop action at its best. Being a bonafide hardcourt fan and a couch potato myself, I could hardly leave my seat to get my fill of popcorn and pizza, as the boobtube action presented highlight after glorious highlight of fun and energy.
A world away, spanking new line-ups and alliances in the NBA are battling it out in what are enticing appetizers to determine who will step forward for the epic battles come the playoffs next April.
After 5 months of jostling and jawing for top stars and dominant rookies, the NBA season got underway in spectacular fashion. It’s a wide open race for the crown this time; and each week, we have been regaled with match-ups made in Hoop Heaven. Not a week goes by without dynamic duos such as the Lakers’ King Lebron and Anthony Davis, or the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, or the Rockets’ James Harden and Russell Westbrook, or the Sixers’ Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons or the Celtics’ Kemba Walker and the Jayson-Jaylen twins locking horns, matching wits against each other. And it certainly looks like it will be an exciting race for the playoff.
In the Eastern Conference, the top seeds Milwaukee Bucks (12-3) and Philadelphia 76ers (9-5) are being challenged strongly by the surprising Boston Celtics (11-3), the under-the-radar Miami Heat (10-3), and reigning but Kawhi-less Toronto Raptors (10-4). The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo will not give up his regular season MVP crown without a fight. After a strong start, Embiid and Simmons have been in and out of sick bay, hence the Sixers low flight in the past weeks. The Celtics, despite losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, are showing that good teamwork will always trump individual talent. Boston’s diminutive Kemba Walker is showing far better leadership than the stylish Kyrie, squeezing more juice from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, sustaining the Celtic charge despite the injury sidelining Gordon Hayward. The Raptors, starring budding star Paskal Siakam, are using last year’s playoff experience to push themselves despite Kawhi’s flight and the absence of Kyle Lowry due to injury.
In the Western Conference, the LA’s Lakers (12-2) and Clippers (10-5) are revving an inter-town rivalry. But they too are challenged, as the Denver Nuggets (10-3), the Houston Rockets (11-4), the Dallas Mevericks (9-5) and the Utah Jazz (9-5) are flexing their muscles for all to see. After a forgettable first game against the Clippers, King Lebron’s Lakers are finally showing steady progress. The Clippers, on the other hand, have shown glimpses of greatness, with Paul George reporting for court duty. But the load management program that has Kawhi missing some important match-ups is not sitting well with some fans. In Houston, the fragile Harden-Westbrook alliance seems to be holding. We’ll see how it goes when the going gets tough in the playoffs. In Dallas, Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic is taking it a step higher with his sizzling MVP numbers.
In the Southeast Asian scene, the Philippines’ newest version of the Gilas squad is getting ready for the SEA Games. It is the last international bastion of glory that cage-crazy Pinoys are holding on to, but the Thais and the Indons have slowly been inching closer with their new breed of players. With a mix crew of oldies and newbies, resurrected national coach Tim Cone hopes that he doesn’t end up with the ignominy of being the coach that gave it all away.
Veterans June Mar Fajardo, LA Tenorio, Japeth Aguilar and Roger Pogoy will lead the campaign. Notable absentees are the wily court leader Jayson Castro, Ginebra’s behemoth Greg Slaughter and crowd favorite Terrence Romeo. The tourney will kick-off on December 4 here in Manila.
In the PBA scene, the elimination round is over, and the 8 qualifiers for the next round step forward. The NLEX Warriors, Meralco Bolts and the TNT Katropa finished with similar 8-3 slots as the wild regular round-robin ended. The three were joined by crowd favorite Ginebra Kings to gain top honors and twice-to-beat advantage in the playoffs. The powerhouse San Miguel Beermen have their dreams of a rare sweep in jeopardy as they landed 5th in the elimination round. The PBA will take a break as the SEA Games take center stage this early December.
In the NCAA, the storied rivalry between the Letran Knights and the San Beda Red Lions hit the roof, with the Knights nipping the Lions 81-79 in Game 3 of a heart-stopping best-of-3 Finals series. In 2015, the Knights had spoiled the Red Lions’ bid for a glorious 6-peat, carving out a hard-earned overtime win in another Game 3 series. Once again, the Knights have stopped the Lions’ 3-peat bid on its road to another championship. Before a sellout crowd of over 19,000 at the MOA Arena, the Knights’ Jerrick Balanza – making a heroic comeback this year after a risky brain surgery – unleashed 27 points to break the hearts of the Lions’ fans.
And over in the UAAP, the Ateneo Blue Eagles completed a rare tournament sweep, with 16 straight wins covering the eliminations up to the final round. But the dream feat was by no means easy, as the UST Growling Tigers kept pounding till the end. UST had almost capped a cinderella season, coming from behind countless times to take the second Finals slot away from erstwhile tourney favorite, UP Fighting Maroons.
But the Eagles simply would not be denied. Thirdy Ravena, for the longest time playing under the shadow of his multi-awarded big-bro Kiefer, became the first and only 3-time MVP in UAAP’s Men’s Basketball Finals, with a Finals average of 29.5 points, 8 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.5 blocks per game. And cerebral Coach Tab Baldwin deflected the praises ever so coolly, opting to pour love and extreme compliments on his wards. Indeed, the Eagles have soared so much higher for anyone to catch.
There you have it, folks. The week that was. Will El-Ay’s Lakers and the Clippers duke it out for the Western Conference crown in the NBA? Or will the Rockets spoil the Laker-Clipper thriller? Will the Celtics be able to slip past the gauntlet set by the Bucks and the Sixers in the east? Will the Philippines keep its last international basketball crown in the international arena? Will the San Miguel Beermen be able to achieve that rare sweep of the year’s 3 PBA tourneys? Stay glued.
Last week’s offerings have been good for sports fanatics like me. Tune in for more next week.