IN THE ISH: When the praises go up, the blessings come down

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This article by Chuck Araneta appears in SLAM PH #200

The Rain or Shine Elasto Painters paid their dues, one bridesmaid finish at a time – for four damn years. They fought, and pushed, and fought some more. Finally, it paid off.

On the court, Beau Belga is one of the roughest and fiercest competitors in the PBA. He’s not afraid to throw elbows, to send a message to opponents, and he celebrates booming triples by pointing an imaginary sniper rifle or shotgun at opponents or their fans. When he makes two free throws in front of the opponents fans, he puts a finger to his mouth, telling them to shut the hell up. It drives them crazy. It’s what makes Belga alive.

But the man famous for being a member of Extra Rice Inc. isn’t all elbows and sniper rifles. This is a dude that wears Mickey and Minnie Mouse socks on the court. He’s thoughtful when he’s away from the basketball court. And for the purposes of this article, he’s one of the best interviews in the Association.

For the past few years that Rain or Shine has fallen short of winning it all, Belga has compared the experience to having a “pako” wedged deep inside the Elasto Painters. That nail has, for some reason, kept them from breaking through and winning a championship. When they lost yet again in the Philippine Cup semifinals, Belga confessed that the losing had been weighing heavily on him and his team, and they were tired of it.

Cut to this Commissioner’s Cup conference, and the setup is the same: They’re in a position to win it all, going up against the Alaska Aces in a best-of-seven series. Belga has just helped his squad eliminate the San Miguel Beermen in the semis.

Once again, they have a chance to remove the “pako” that has made everything hurt.

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Game 1

The Rain or Shine Elasto Painters were done with being another team’s obstacle in the march to a championship. For four agonizing years, they stepped into semifinals and Finals hoping to taste the sweet, sweet aroma of victory, only to come up short each time.

Things would be different now. They boasted of a complete lineup, deep in every position. Their 2012 championship core of Belga, JR Quiñahan, Gabe Norwood, Paul Lee and Jeff Chan was bolstered by the youthful contributions of Raymond Almazan, Jericho Cruz and Maverick Ahanmisi. Their fourth import of the conference, Pierre Henderson-Niles was a load down on the block. He wasn’t a scorer, but what he could do, and do well, was take up space, rebound and defend.

Alaska was almost in the same boat as the Elasto Painters. By virtue of defeating the Meralco Bolts in their semis matchup, they had made their fourth Finals appearance in five conferences. The first three all ended in heartbreaking losses. They were hungry to finally win the whole damn thing.

But Paul Lee was hungry too. Hell, he was feasting on the moment. With injuries robbing the Lethal Weapon of opportunities to play meaningful basketball and contribute to the Rain or Shine cause, Lee had to take a step back and watch as his teammates shouldered the load for him. But here in the Finals, Paul Lee told everyone that he wasn’t going anywhere, as he finished game one scoring a conference-best 20 points on 4-of-5 shooting from distance.

Lee’s last triple came with a minute left in regulation, with Rain or Shine clinging to a 96-94 lead. As Alaska employed their full court trap to try and force a turnover, they made the deadly mistake of sending three defenders to try and trap sophomore Jericho Cruz in the backcourt. Cruz pitched it forward to Norwood, who found Lee all alone on the left elbow.

Lee literally had two full seconds to line up a triple with no one around him. Buckets. Game one.

Rain or Shine-105 Alaska-97

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Game 2

In an alternate universe, Beau Belga is the hero of game two. He gets the ball in the left corner and jacks up a shot that goes in. He runs to the center of the court, spraying imaginary machine gun ammo at the shocked Alaska fans in the Upper Box section of the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

But real life is very rarely a fairy tale. The truth is very far from fiction.

“Inagaw ni Beau yung isang corner,” Rain or Shine Head Coach Yeng Guiao shared after game two. “Hindi naman dapat siya ang shooter dun. It wasn’t the play, but it turned out to be the winning play for us.”

The shot of Belga led to “The Shot” in this series. With 27 seconds left, the game was tied at 103 apiece after Alaska went on a furious run to tie the game.

But Rain or Shine had the ball. And more importantly, they had freaking Paul Lee.

He was at the top of the key, being defended by Rob Dozier, who had to switch after a dribble handoff. This version of Paul Lee, still a bit over his playing weight and recovering from a knee injury, wouldn’t be able to blow by Dozier. But what he could do was get to any spot he wanted, or at least, most spots he wanted. So he drives, and an extra defender helps on him, leaving Belga open for the triple. Belga had already made two triples in the third quarter, so he shot this with confidence. For the record, he’d do it again in a heartbeat. “Pag libre ako, wala na akong pakialam,” Belga told reporters after the game.

So Belga fires and misses. As players from both sides scramble for the rebound, Lee is still out of bounds, his momentum from driving carrying him there. He sees everyone jockeying for position under the basket, and follows the direction of the ball. Literally, you can see his eyes already measuring where the ball will go. With only a few seconds remaining, Lee steps back onto the court at the exact spot where the ball lands, and flips up one of the most casual, relaxed game winners in PBA Finals history.

Buckets. 2-0.

“Masaya kasi nakabalik na ako,” Lee said after the game. “Sana magtuluy-tuloy. Mahaba pa itong series na ito.”

Rain or Shine-105 Alaska-103

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Game 3

The opportunity to win game three and go up 3-0 against the Aces was intoxicating enough on its own, but the Elasto Painters had another reason to go out and win: They didn’t want their head coach Yeng Guiao to take another L. The former Vice Governor and Councilor of Pampanga lost in his bid for re-election in the May 9 elections, which was two days before the third game of the PBA Finals. The Elasto Painters would never admit that Guiao asked them to win this game, but he didn’t have to. Their play on the court showed just how badly they wanted to win this for Guiao.

15-of-33 from the field. Take a guess what that Rain or Shine statistic from Game 3 was. Free throws? Nope. Points in one quarter? Guess again. It was actually the three pointers made by Rain or Shine in the game. That’s a staggering number. That’s Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors-ridiculous level.

The Elasto Painters were so dominant, they had Aces players like Cyrus Baguio talking like he had been knocked down to the ground in a boxing match. “Sa lahat ng mga Finals ko, eto ang worst game na nilaro ko. As a team, flat lahat. Hindi ko alam kung ano nangyayari. Maraming doubts siguro, nagkakaproblema bawat isa. Hindi ko alam ano nangyayari sa amin.”

As Beau Belga left The Big Dome with a 3-0 series lead against the Aces, the confidence of a player who knows that his team is totally in command was plastered all over his face. But he wouldn’t allow himself to be complacent. “Three inches na nakaangat,” Belga says about the “pako.” “Pag nanalo sa game four, nakalabas na yan.”

“Sana hindi na uli tumusok.”

Rain or Shine-112 Alaska 108

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Game 4

You can’t keep a good squad down forever. That’s what Rain or Shine learned about these Alaska Aces.

There would be no sweep; Calvin Abueva and the Aces wouldn’t allow it. Finally playing with a sense of desperation and urgency, Alaska came alive in game four, the same day that The Beast was awarded his first-ever Best Player of the Conference Award. Fighting back tears during the awarding ceremony, Abueva was at his emotional best, helping to revive the hopes of a squad that was staring at the abyss.

At least temporarily.

All throughout the series, Alaska head coach Alex Compton said that the only adjustment his team would have to make was to execute properly, to take the game plan laid out during film-viewing and actually do it on the court. Finally, their pick and roll defense was covering the right playmaker and scorer, and their shots were at last falling.

Try as the Elasto Painters might, they couldn’t sweep Alaska. The most striking image of game four was Abueva getting called for his second technical foul of the evening, and leaving the floor waving his hands at the Rain or Shine fans and pointing to his five fingers raised, signaling that he would see them in game five.

Rain or Shine’s coronation would have to wait another day.

Alaska-111 Rain or Shine-99

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Game 5

Rain or Shine wanted to celebrate on this Sunday afternoon, but Alaska said that this is the Lord’s day, and He should be the only one we celebrate on Sundays.

Once again, the balloons that were perched in the ceiling would have to stay there for a few more days. Alaska had an answer once again for the Elato Painters’ championship dreams, as they showcased a relentless defense that frustrated Rain or Shine’s scorers. The Aces had a counter for every Elasto Painter run. Only Paul Lee and Jeff Chan scored in double-figures for the normally explosive RoS team. The Aces, on the other hand, got contributions from everyone on the floor.

All of a sudden, the whispers of a “Himalaska” grew stronger. Would the “Beeracle” be recrafted into a “Milk-acale?” Would we be able to stop giving forced nicknames to every single thing in the PBA?

Who knows.

As game five ended, Abueva was front and center yet again, barking and howling at the moon to the delight of the Aces fans. Only one Rain or Shine player stepped up to confront him, and that was veteran Gabe Norwood. The Gilas veteran and one of the nicest guys in the league barked back at Abueva, telling Mr. BPC, “This series isn’t over.”

It truly wasn’t, but Rain or Shine’s chokehold on the series was growing looser and looser. One more Alaska win, and this 3-0 series could become 3-3. The “pako” lodged in each Elasto Painter was starting to go down again.

Alaska-86 Rain or Shine-78

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Game 6

All you need to know about this game is that Paul Lee decided to end things in the first quarter.

It took two minutes for Lee to kill any hopes of an Aces comeback in the Finals. It took Lee two minutes to score fifteen points and shove the Elasto Painters ahead with what would ultimately be an insurmountable lead.

Lee was at his brash, confident best, scoring on triples with hands all up in his face, as well as driving down the lane and scoring on and-one opportunities. His scoring binge left fans in a frenzy, and his teammates absolutely jacked.

While Lee set the tone, Jericho Cruz delivered the crescendo. The sophomore guard scattered 21 points in the contest, as he teamed with Lee to finally erase any doubts that this was Rain or Shine’s championship.

Alaska battled valiantly, but in the end it just wasn’t enough. Injuries, fatigue and the overwhelming force of Rain or Shine’s attack just conspired to keep them from winning a championship once again. In the end, their fourth Finals appearance in five conferences led to their fourth straight Finals loss. They would have to wait their turn once more.

Under Coach Compton, they’ve waited for their turn for two years. But Rain or Shine had been waiting and agonizing for four damn years.

It was their time to celebrate.

Rain or Shine-109 Alaska-92

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Epilogue

The championshop balloons fell to the ground and were either popped or taken home by the fans. The brave warriors from Alaska quickly left the venue to rest and recover from what was another emotionally grueling series. The Rain or Shine locker room smelled like champagne (beer, really, but champagne sounds cooler).

Beau Belga left the locker room, limping slowly away. The effects of battle with a rugged Alaska squad would be felt by each competitor for a very long time.

Yet the physical pain didn’t matter at all. It could not compare to the happiness and relief that Belga and the rest of the Elasto Painters felt, now that they had finally scaled the mountain. Belga could walk freely (if a bit gingerly) for now, knowing that the “pako” was lifted entirely.

“Nabunot na,” Belga said, as he headed off into the warm Manila evening to celebrate with his teammates. Not to celebrate another moral victory, or a job well done.

But to celebrate as champions.

Watermark-less photos by KC Cruz

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