Hunger games

The war begins at the MOA Arena tonight. It’s Game 1 of the PBA Governors Cup best-of-seven Finals between third-seed Alaska and fourth-seed Magnolia, both brandishing 12-4 records, both hungry for a championship, both coming off three wins of four playoff contests. There isn’t a confrontation that’s more evenly matched.

The opposing coaches have never won a PBA title. Alaska’s Alex Compton is a four-time Finals bridesmaid while Magnolia’s Chito Victolero has tasted defeat once in the Last Dance. The Purefoods franchise, now competing as Magnolia, hasn’t won a title in the last 11 conferences and Alaska, in the last 15. There probably aren’t teams that want to win the title as badly as Magnolia and Alaska.

Compton, 44, and Victolero, 42, are former PBA players who represent the new breed of coaches in the league – cerebral, tactical and highly motivated. The respect they show the game is the same respect they show their players so their ability to make an impact as strategists is unquestioned. The players know their success depends on how efficiently they execute what is expected of them by the coaches.

The imports are top-notch. Magnolia’s Romeo Travis, 33, has won championships since he was in high school teaming with buddy LeBron James. As a pro, he has won three titles. In 2015, Travis was named Best Import in the PBA with Alaska, averaging 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds in 19 games. Compton and Travis were together when the Aces were swept by San Miguel Beer in the Governors Cup Finals that season. Now, three years later, they’re on opposite sides. Travis is averaging 24.5 points, 14.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 40.4 minutes in 16 outings so far this conference, hitting 46.9 percent from the field and 76.7 percent from the line. When Magnolia bounced Ginebra in the Game 4 clincher of the best-of-five semifinal series, Travis made sure there wouldn’t be a Game 5 by scattering 50 points in a 112-108 win. He shot 21 points in the fourth quarter to seal Ginebra’s doom.

Harris, 35, was on Compton’s import wish list for eight years. He played in Kuwait, Puerto Rico, China, Ukraine, Iran and Lebanon after averaging 3.4 points in 54 total contests with the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards in four NBA seasons. Finally, Harris accepted Compton’s invitation and now, he’s four wins short of capturing a seventh title as a pro. Harris is averaging 30.3 points, 20.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 37.4 minutes in 16 games this conference. In eight of his 16 appearances, Harris hauled down at least 20 boards. His high game was 44 points.

When it comes to defense, nobody does it better than the Hotshots. Magnolia is No. 1 in defense, allowing 94 points a game, No. 1 in steals at 10.5 and No. 1 in turnover points at 21.4. Alaska, however, is No. 1 in least turnover points allowed at 14.7 and No. 2 in least turnovers at 14.3. On offense, the Aces are No. 2 in field goal accuracy at 45.5 percent and No. 1 in second chance points, 17.9. 

Alaska doesn’t rely on Harris as much as Magnolia leans on Travis. No player is averaging at least 40 minutes at Alaska with three Aces logging at least 30 – Harris, Chris Banchero and Simon Enciso. In contrast, Travis is averaging 40.4 minutes but no local is logging at least 30, indicating a more balanced local deployment.

In their only encounter this conference, Magnolia won, 83-73, at the Big Dome last Oct. 14. The Hotshots had three less turnovers, six more rebounds, five more field goal attempts, four more assists, seven more bench points, eight more points in the paint and nine more free throw conversions. Harris shot 24 points but only two other Aces hit in twin digits, Banchero with 13 and supersub Vic Manuel with 12. Travis fired 19 and had support from Jio Jalalon with 18, Paul Lee with 14 and Mark Barroca with 12.

Both teams lost to Meralco and Ginebra in the eliminations. Alaska’s average losing margin in four games was 7.3 and for Magnolia, 7.5. There also isn’t much difference in their average age – Magnolia at 30 and Alaska, 29.4. Oldest in the Hotshots roster is Raffi Reavis, 41 and the youngest is Robbie Herdon, 25. For Alaska, the senior statesman is Sonny Thoss at 36 and the Benjamin is Jeron Teng, 24.

The rival backcourts could conceivably balance each other out. For Magnolia, Lee, Jalalon, Barroca, P. J. Simon (shooting 48.6 percent from deep) and Justin Melton comprise the guard corps. For Alaska, the guards are Banchero, Jvee Casio, Enciso, Teng and Chris Exciminiano. Either team has the option to go small with three guards and they wouldn’t lose a beat. The opposing guards play a similar style – they press, try to force turnovers, go up-and-down, trap, penetrate and dish. If the imports and guards even out, the frontcourt will make the difference. Manuel, who hasn’t started a game this conference, is a tested scorer in the clutch for Alaska while Ian Sangalang has been super productive in the playoffs, averaging 14.4 points in the playoffs for Magnolia.

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