The 2012 AirAsia ABL Finals combines two teams on a serious roll. The San Miguel Beermen, taken to three games by the Westports Malaysia Dragons, enter the championship series having won 9 of their last 10 games. Their opponent, the Indonesia Warriors, have won 7 straight, including two relatively easy wins over the AirAsia Philippine Patriots.*
*Everyone seems impressed that I correctly predicted the semifinal winners and the winning margin in each series. Don’t be. I’m the same guy who picked the San Antonio Spurs over the Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games. I also thought Facebook was a good buy at $45 a share…
What are both teams' red-hot form based on? They each made a calculated decision at mid-seasons to make major roster changes. The high-risk, high-reward strategy paid off handsomely for both San Miguel and Indonesia.
San Miguel dumped Darlon Johnson and Jerrid Famous in favour of Duke Crews and Nick Fazekas. The move gave San Miguel both a true low-post presence with Fazekas and a high-flying slasher in Crews. Just as important, Chris Banchero took over the show at the point and immediately reset the Beermen offense. Banchero knows how to find the open man. In Game 1 of the semis, Banchero set an ABL single-game record with 15 assists.
Indonesia let the wooden John Smith go, and replaced him with the towering Evan Brock. Brock now shoulders the inside load alongside Steve Thomas. The Warriors also added Fil-Am Stan Pringle, a former Penn State point guard who has blazing speed to go along with a high basketball IQ. With those two changes in place, the Warriors haven’t dropped a game since April 4th.
The Final isn’t lacking in compelling storylines. Let’s break them down:
Can Steve Thomas Get Over The Hump?
It’s easy to forget that Steve Thomas got to the 2011 Final with the Philippine Patriots. It’s forgettable largely because Thomas was thoroughly outplayed by the Thailand Slammers’ Jason Dixon as the Patriots went down in two straight. Seething after that loss, Thomas has brought a laser-like focus to his work this season. He led the ABL in rebounds in the regular season and completely dominated the Patriots Nakiea Miller in the semifinal round. Thomas showed everyone he is ready to put the Warriors on his back in the Final. Thomas also makes me wonder if he was separated at birth from Samuel Jackson. You tell me:
Who will win the Point Guard Track Meet?
Did you watch the semifinals? If you did, those blurs on your screen were Chris Banchero and Stan Pringle streaking up and down the floor. Nobody could stay with them. Not their opponents, not their teammates and certainly not our ABL cameras. The speed of Pringle and Banchero mean they are often going out on their own in transition, so it’ll be fun in the Finals to see these two battle each other. It should look something like this:
Matchups Are Why Coaches Get Paid
The head coaches have lots of decisions to make in setting their defenses. For the Beermen’s Bobby Parks, he has to figure out how to defend two legitimate big men. Unlike the Dragons who only had one low-post option in Brian Williams, the Warriors can pound the ball to either Thomas or Brock in the post. If Parks puts Fazekas on Thomas, then Thomas will either bully his way past Fazekas to the rim, or kick to Brock who can shoot over the smaller Crews. Fazekas would have trouble staying with the more mobile Brock, so that doesn’t look promising either.
For the Warriors’ Todd Purves, the choices are just as tough. First, Fazekas is so fluid in the lane, that defenders aren’t sure what’s coming next. Fazekas can hit the hook shot, the runner, and has a turnaround jump shot that makes him a handful for anyone. He’ll just shoot over Thomas, so that leaves Brock to cover the Beermen big man. It’ll be a key battle worth watching. The perimeter is also a headache for Purves. Leo Avenido has an outside shot that commands respect, but he can also put it on the floor and blow past his man. That man, in this series, is likely to be Mario Wuysang, who will have trouble with the taller, rangier Avenido.
This feels like a good time to point out that San Miguel beat the Warriors all three times they met this season. But their last meeting was way back on March 31st. And none of the three games included Fazekas, Banchero, Brock or Pringle. So what can we learn from the head-to-head? Zilch. Let’s just move on.
Both squads have guys that have seemingly come out of nowhere to make an impact. The Warriors can spell Pringle or Wuysang with Jerick Cañada (pronounced can-yah-da), a speed demon who always seems to catch defenders napping. He is also not afraid to shoot from deep so the defense needs to rotate to him quickly or risk getting burned on the three.
Here is how deep the Beermen are: Through the first two games of the semifinal, the Beermen played Christian Luanzon for a total of 2 minutes and 10 seconds. He didn’t attempt a shot. Then in Game 3, he comes off the bench, hits 3 of 5 shots and scores 8 points in 11 minutes. The former Alaska Ace gives the Beermen yet another weapon coming off the bench.
(Then again, they can’t be that mysterious. They both have way more Twitter followers than me.)
With good reason, Filipinos feel that basketball in Southeast Asia is their sport. Spend a day in the country and it feels like everyone is into the game. And the atmosphere at a basketball game in Manila is just electric. They know the sport and are used to fielding winners. And one of the country’s winningest franchises is the San Miguel Beermen. While this is the ABL edition of San Miguel, the club still carries a rich tradition and they expect nothing less than a championship in their maiden season. For the Philippines, a second ABL season without a championship team would be dumbfounding.
The Warriors can’t claim the same tradition. Indonesia has played second fiddle to the Philippines in Southeast Asian basketball for quite some time. So winning the ABL title against a regional heavyweight in the Beermen would be so sweet for the Warriors. Need I add that Satria Muda got to the Finals in 2010, only to fall to Gabe Freeman and the Philippine Patriots in 2 straight games? Would they like some Pinoy payback? Are they drawing inspiration from Timothy Bradley? Yes and yes.
The Beermen crafted a league-best 17-4 record so they would have homecourt through the playoffs. And it sure came in handy, as they were trounced in their lone road game in Kuala Lumpur. For the Warriors, they started the playoffs on the road and it didn’t faze them a bit, dispatching the Patriots at Ynares Arena before clinching the series in Jakarta.
I see the Beermen winning Game 1 at home, as the Warriors will be coming into the Finals after a two-week layoff. I think there’ll be some rust. But from there, it's trouble for the Beermen. I just can’t see how the Beermen can establish an inside presence against Thomas and Brock. Duke Crews’ game is based on getting space in the lane so he can elevate for the jam. But that room won’t be there with Brock and Thomas clogging the lane. If the Beermen have to go outside, they will be relying on a series of shooters who never got going in the semifinals (the Beermen were a combined 31% from 3-pt territory in the series).
Too much power in the middle and too much speed in the backcourt from a Warriors team peaking at just the right time. The Pick: Indonesia Warriors in 3 games. (I’d lay money on it but I got cleaned out on that Facebook thing…)