In a new chapter to what has been a one-sided rivalry so far, Barangay Ginebra and Meralco will be crossing paths in the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup semifinals under the most unique circumstances.
Game 1 is scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. (TV5, One Sports and PBA Rush).
Unlike their past three matchups -- all of which Ginebra has won, both narrowly and decisively -- the Bolts and the Gin Kings will try to eliminate each other this time in a non-import tournament while isolated inside a grueling bubble setup that has separated the contenders from the rest of the pack.
Ginebra, vying to end a 13-season drought in the All-Filipino Conference, will also continue to do it without center Greg Slaughter against a Meralco team that will be playing in the second round of the Philippine Cup for the first time in franchise history.
Meralco head coach Norman Black has gone on record this conference to say that this is the best All-Filipino squad he has coached so far, but he understands that the Bolts are still the underdogs against their nemesis.
"We know they're going to be the favorites," he said after Meralco ended the San Miguel dynasty with a massive win on Sunday to advance. "I mean, they have a very, very good team, a lot of quality players on their team, but we'll be out there fighting."
But for Gin Kings head coach Tim Cone, a fourth tiff against a Meralco team they have repeatedly dominated in the past doesn't really mean they have a psychological advantage.
"What's this, round 4 against Meralco? And it's getting harder and harder because they continue to grow and get better," he said in a text message.
It was Ginebra who came out on top in the first matchup this year during the elimination round a month ago on Oct. 18. Behind a sound defensive game plan and some impressive shooting from all over the floor, the Gin Kings scored a 105-91 romp of Meralco for the third of eight wins that would later guarantee them the top seed and a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals.
Both teams, however, were hardly in-form at that point in that conference.
Japeth Aguilar led Ginebra with 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting in 22 minutes, but that was his best game at that juncture after a slow start in the Philippine Cup. LA Tenorio, also still finding his legs early on, just had six points and four assists in 17 minutes before getting his rhythm later in the conference. The Gin Kings, though, got good production from Stanley Pringle (16 points, seven rebounds), Jeff Chan (12 points, two threes) and rookie Arvin Tolentino (11 off the bench) in the win.
Meralco saw Allein Maliksi (18 points), Reynel Hugnatan (16 and seven rebounds), and Chris Newsome (10 points in 32 minutes) score in double figures, but Raymond Almazan -- whom Black said is an important piece to the puzzle for a Bolts team that lacked ceiling for the most part in the past three matchups against Ginebra -- only had six points and two boards in what was just his second game back from a knee injury.
"They beat us pretty, pretty soundly earlier in the conference. I think we're a much better team now than we were earlier in the conference, so hopefully we can give them a run for their money," said Black.
A lot of their hopes will rest on how Almazan fares against the Ginebra frontline, particularly against Aguilar. The 31-year-old Letran alum played just 19 minutes per game in 10 elimination contests but was nonetheless productive, averaging 8.6 points on 54 percent shooting and 6.9 rebounds.
"Japeth's been playing great basketball, so luckily we have a guy that can match up with him most of the time, which will probably give us a better chance of winning games," Black said.
If Almazan is healthy, he could serve as a neutralizer to Aguilar's (14.2 points on 56 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks) play. Against the Beermen, Almazan was limited; he played just two minutes in the first game after hurting his left knee in a collision, then he played just 14 minutes, logging eight points and five boards, during that blowout win in the knockout match two days ago.
It wouldn't be fair to the rest of the Bolts to pin all their chances on Almazan, though, considering how well-rounded they have been on both ends of the floor this entire conference.
On offense, Meralco thrives on balanced scoring. The team scored 91.1 points (ninth among 12 teams) and didn't fire or make a lot of threes (10th in attempts, ninth at 31.4 percent), but it made a healthy amount of its shots overall (43.7 percent, fourth), moved the ball pretty well (21.8 assists, fourth) and got good production from its bench (40.1 points, sixth).
Hustle also got the Bolts a lot of points. They got 14.9 second chance points (fifth) thanks to some impressive work on the offensive glass (180 in 11 games, third overall). Almazan (2.7 offensive boards) helped a lot in that regard.
"We don't really have a 20-points scorer like most teams have," said Black, "but we have a lot of balanced scoring as far as guys coming off the bench and contributing, as well as some of the starters, is concerned.
"We play as a team on defense, so we also play as a team on offense, and we're one of the better teams in the league at distributing the basketball and coming up with assists during the course of the game," he continued. "We'll just continue to play with the way we've been playing, which is the move to basketball, get everybody involved as much as possible, and get contributions from everyone."
Defensively, Meralco is pretty stout. Even before shutting down San Miguel in their quarterfinals matchup, the Bolts have excelled at slowing down offenses. They allowed just 91.6 points (fourth-lowest number) on 41.3 percent shooting (fifth); teams shot 33.4 percent on their triples against them, which would be a top-four figure, but Meralco allowed the second-least attempts from long range out of anyone this conference.
Although Meralco also didn't intercept lanes a lot (11th in steals), it secured a lot of rebounds (50.6, tied for fourth) and deterred a lot of shots (3.5 blocks, fifth).
But as impressive as the Bolts may sound, there's a reason Black thinks his team isn't favored against Ginebra.
Few teams are as equipped to beat the Meralco defense as the Gin Kings are this conference. Ginebra rotates the rock extremely well (24.7 assists, second), and that has led to a lot of easy looks -- they hit 45.5 percent from the field (first), 51.5 percent inside the arc (third) and 35 percent (fourth) on the few threes they do throw up from distance.
Pringle is going to be a handful for Meralco's backcourt to contain. A top-10 scorer this conference, the 33-year-old guard tallied 18.7 points on 49-43-95 shooting splits and tacked on 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists to his name in the eliminations.
"They probably have the best player in the league in Stanley Pringle. I know some of the guys will say Matthew Wright and other guys, but for me Stanley Pringle is probably one of the top three players in the league," Black commented.
Elsewhere the Gin Kings can also be potentially overwhelming.
Aguilar could end up nullifying Almazan if he returns to his 2019 Governors' Cup Finals MVP form in the semis. Tenorio, who tallied just 6.6 points and 4.1 assists on 38.5 percent shooting, is due for another big game and could feast on Meralco's guards again. Scottie Thompson (11.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals) is always an x-factor. Prince Caperal, who tallied a conference-best 46.3 percent on threes, might pick it back up again after cooling down from a tremendous start.
"When you look at Ginebra, they're well-coached. I mean they have the all-time winningest coach," Black said. "Not to mention that they're the best when it comes to moving to basketball and playing as a team."
Scoring on this Ginebra team is an entirely different challenge altogether as well. The defense allowed the second-lowest points per game at 87.4 and held teams to bottom-four ranks on shooting overall (40.3 percent), on twos (46.5 percent, third-lowest) and on threes (29.6 percent, fourth).
The Gin Kings' frontline has been sturdy, too, grabbing 50.9 rebounds (tied for second) and swatting away 3.7 shots (tied for third) per contest.
All these could pose a lot of challenges for a Meralco roster that has no player scoring more than 15 points per game -- its leading scorer in Newsome is putting up just 14.5 a night.
But with the way the Bolts silenced the Beermen and ended their monopoly on the Philippine Cup over the weekend, Cone still thinks Meralco is fully capable of figuring it all out and getting over the hump this time around regardless of the numbers.
"This will be their toughest version with Almazan and the maturity of their young core, plus the wily veteran Reynel Hugnatan," he said. "Coach Norman always gets the best out of his teams. Their game plan and execution against SMB was tremendous. We know we have a huge fight on our hands. It's on us to prepare for it."