For the second straight season, San Miguel Alab Pilipinas and Hong Kong Eastern are on each other’s path to the ABL title.
Last season, defending champion Hong Kong Eastern qualified directly into the semifinals but this advantage went to waste as they were swept by Alab to take away their chance of keeping their title.
Now the shoe is on the other foot as Alab aims to be the first back-to-back ABL champion in history.
The defending champions looked unbeatable at the start of their title-retention bid but injuries to key guys slowed them down at the tail end of the elimination round as they fell to the second spot after enjoying the top spot for most of the season. Alab enters the playoffs with a four-game losing skid, which is the worse among the eight teams making it into the quarterfinals.
Hong Kong Eastern, on the other end, pulled off a big move before their final two games as they decided to activate O’Darien Basset to replace Sam Deguara.
“We would have suffered in one aspect of the game whatever our decision might have been,” explained Edu Torres. “If we kept Sam, we would have lacked another playmaker to help out Marcus (Elliott). If we took him out, it leaves us with only one big so it’s a gamble either way.”
Hong Kong Eastern’s decision made PJ Ramos a the key guy now for Alab in their upcoming series. He dominated Deguara in the elimination round as Alab won three of their four games. If Mike Holyfield gets into foul troubles of any kind, then Ramos should dominate. The difficult part for Hong Kong Eastern is that a smaller defender will also be on Renaldo Balkman at all times.
In their penultimate game of the elimination round, Elliott, Adam Xu, and Jon Siu took turns trying to slow down the much bigger Maxie Esho, which would again be the case against the World MVP contender.
For Alab, the challenge is how to stay in front of Elliott and Bassett. The two are explosive scorers who can take turns slicing up the defense with their speed. They also have great chemistry together so defending them will be quite a challenge. However, Alab has some assets such as Ray Parks and Pao Javelona who are solid defenders.
The biggest challenge for Hong Kong Eastern now is to figure out a way to pick up a win on Alab’s home-court. The champs have only lost once in the Philippines this season and it came against the top-seeded Formosa Dreamers with Balkman not playing.