The seemingly one-sided PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals took a different turn on Sunday night when the Alaska Aces pulled off a gritty 86-78 win in Game 5 to cut Rain or Shine’s series lead to just one game, 3-2.
In a stark contrast of the series’ first 3 games where the Aces groped for form and were always a step behind, they finally rediscovered their old self playing quicker and a lot smarter with a sense of urgency especially on defense.
“It’s another proud game from my guys. They (Rain or Shine) only scored 78 but still it doesn’t change my opinion that they’re the best offensive team in this league,” Alaska coach Alex Compton told reporters after dodging another knockout blow.
Compton should really be proud because it was Rain or Shine’s lowest output in 4 conferences according to PBA’s chief statistician Fidel Mangonon III.
The Aces were able to ground the Elasto Painters’ running game, limiting them to just 4 fastbreak points and neutralize their outside shooting with Alaska hitting 7-of-26 from beyond the arc compared to Rain or Shine’s uglier 6-of-30 mark.
“It makes me really proud about my guys with the way they played defense. I wish we played like that in Games 1, 2 and 3. I wish we really played that way earlier,” Compton added.
After blowing a 3-1 series lead in the Philippine Cup Finals, the Aces now have a real shot at redemption by fighting back and going through the same course, but this time, they’re hoping to be at the right end of the stick.
“Having been on the bad side of history? I don’t know if we can say we have psychological edge but we played 3 knockout games to enter here. And now we’ve played another 2 and that’s 5 straight,” Compton said. “I really do appreciate my guys’ hearts.”
In the quarterfinals, the Aces dethroned last season’s champion Tropang TNT by winning the last 2 games of the series after bowing out in the opener. In the semifinals, they beat Meralco in a grueling back-and-forth series where they survived the Bolts’ tough stand in a nerve-wracking Game 5.
Compton admitted that with only one day off before the Finals, they were not prepared to fight Rain or Shine.
The former deadshot-turned coach said that mentally, they got stuck with Meralco’s style.
“The Meralco thing was so ingrained in us at the start that we weren’t rotating the way we should. The Meralco series is like a streetfight where you bludgeoned each other. But Rain or Shine is different. They’re like a bunch of bees flying everywhere that you need to be quick on your feet, quick to respond,” Compton said.
But the American coach doesn’t want to fall into a sense of complacency now that his team has come back to its senses after being slapped on the face in the first 3 games. For him, winning the last 2 and with the momentum tilting to their side don’t guarantee that Rain or Shine can’t close them out.
“Rain or Shine is well-coached and they’re strong mentally. We gotta be strong, mentally strong and I know you guys saw it. We made big plays in the end,” said Compton.
None bigger than the last 4 points of the Best Player of the Conference Calvin Abueva, which took the fight out of Rain or Shine.
After getting his first ever BPC award, Abueva showed that he deserved every inch of the hardware. He typified the Aces’ fightback in the last 2 games with his brute strength and big heart forcing Rain or Shine defenders to either get out of the way or foul him.
The Aces made 23-of-27 free throws with Abueva accounting a perfect 6-of-6 that characterized their intensity and aggressiveness. The Elasto Painters, on the other hand, lived and died with their outside shooting as they only went 11 times at the stripes sinking 8.
Almost given up for dead, the Aces of old have found a way to spring back to life. They’re not yet safe though. The Elasto Painters still got two chances to push the final nail on their coffins and bury them 4 Finals loss deeper with Compton at the helm.
But Compton looked and sounded more confident now with his Aces finally showing some life and fight.
“We’re a lot different team in the last 2 games than the first 3. The last 2 games (we played like) more of the team that I know. I want us to play that way,” Compton said.
“That’s what our identity is.” – By Alder Almo
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo