The road to the crowning of the PBA Philippine Cup champion looked more of a journey than a destination as the pro league endured rough roads in order to complete the 45th season that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the first ever, the PBA staged a two-month bubble in Pampanga while reducing the season to only the Philippine Cup which was suspended in mid-March following the lone opening match between San Miguel Beer and Magnolia at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
PBA commissioner Willie Marcial and members of the league’s Board of Governors had to work for months trying to find ways to restart the season amid the pandemic and the subsequent community quarantine regulations imposed by the national government.
It agreed on having a bubble setup inspired by the NBA and tapped the Quest Hotel in Clark and the Angeles University Foundation in nearby Angeles City as sites through help from Bases Conversion and Development Authority president and CEO Vince Dizon, who is also the deputy chief implementer of the National Task Force against COVID-19.
The Inter-Agency Task Force gave the PBA a nod to proceed with the PBA restart in October that saw all 12 teams dispute the eight quarterfinal spots in a compact elimination round schedule that ran for 32 days.
The bubble did encounter threats of bursting after a referee and a Blackwater player initially yielded positive COVID-19 results. Both results eventually turned out to be “false positive” but the PBA had to postpone several games while crafting new protocols to further ensure the safety of the PBA delegation.
From there, the games became the center of attention and the end result saw crowd favorite Barangay Ginebra San Miguel emerging as the new kingpin of the league’s most important tournament following a five-game romp of TNT in the Philippine Cup Finals.
Ginebra started with four straight wins despite a slow start to late bubble entrants Japeth Aguilar and LA Tenorio, who kept extending his record consecutive games streak despite an appendectomy procedure in the days leading up to the resumption.
Back-to-back losses to Manila Clasico rival Magnolia and Rain or Shine turned out to be minor hiccups as coach Tim Cone was able to steer Ginebra to the top seed by the start of the playoffs.
The Gin Kings avenged their loss to the Elasto Painters with a quarterfinal victory powered by late baskets from their most consistent performer in Stanley Pringle, setting up a duel with an old foe in the Meralco Bolts.
It was Meralco that put an end to the five-year reign of San Miguel in the Philippine Cup, overcoming a twice-to-beat advantage in their quarterfinal encounter. The Beermen arrived in Pampanga without June Mar Fajardo, who hurt in shin during an early-February practice, and lost Terrence Romeo just five days into the restart with a dislocated shoulder.
Despite a strong performance from Mo Tautuaa, SMB couldn’t overcome inconsistencies which led to an early exit from the bubble and questions as to whether its dominance is already a thing of the past.
The semifinals proved too difficult for Ginebra as Meralco was able to push the series to a deciding fifth game, even leading for most of the decider. But the Gin Kings showed their true class by turning things around in the fourth before Scottie Thompson’s corner three with less than a second left sealed their place in the Finals.
TNT also had a hot start behind RR Pogoy and Ray Parks Jr., who was eager to show his true worth as one of the league’s top stars. The Tropang Giga also had a new addition in center Poy Erram, acquired from the NLEX Road Warriors in a late-February deal.
Struggles late in the elims put TNT at No. 3 entering the quarters, but made quick work of Alaska in the quarters before facing a talented Phoenix Super LPG side powered by the return of Calvin Abueva.
Like the PBA, Abueva’s return from an indefinite suspension was an adventure in itself. Marcial stood firm in keeping the ban amid calls from fans to reinstate the man they call “The Beast.”
Along the way, Abueva had to attend psychological therapy sessions and a series of seminars by the Games and Amusements Board before Marcial decided five games into Phoenix’s campaign to end the 16-month ban.
Abueva returned as if he was not coming off a long layoff, showing the same aggressiveness while playing with a more-composed attitude. He and early “Bubble MVP” contender Matthew Wright powered Phoenix to the No. 2. seed and a semis trip after dispatching Magnolia.
TNT and Phoenix likewise battled a five-game encounter which ended with the Tropang Giga prevailing behind a big game from Parks in the rubber match and a collective team effort that prevented the Fuel Masters from clinching their first-ever Finals berth.
TNT could have claimed the first two games of the championship series, but both games saw Ginebra pull off comeback victories. The Kings took Game 1 with a 100-94 overtime victory led by Aguilar and Tenorio before Thompson knocked down a corner three to help his team take the lead and eventually prevail 92-90.
The Tropang Giga kept their chances alive in Game 3 with an 88-67 rout despite Parks’ absence due to a calf strain, but the Kings bounced back in Game 4 by scuttling the Tropang Giga comeback 98-88 aided by two late triples from Tenorio.
Tenorio, Aguilar, Pringle and the rest of Ginebra finished the job in Game 5 via an 82-78 decision, giving Cone his 23rd PBA championship and 13th for the league’s most popular ballclub.
Ginebra did it without the presence of its legions of supporters, but nonetheless dedicated the win in their honor. The Kings and the rest of the PBA are hopeful that fans can come back by the time the 46th season rolls on in April.