It was supposed to be a winner-take-all game for the ages – a highly anticipated Game 7 championship battle between the foreign guest team Bay Area Dragons of Hong Kong and the country’s most popular basketball team Barangay Ginebra San Miguel.
This seven-game series was a match made in heaven pitting two talent-laden squads that are headed by triumphant coaches, both highly respected by their peers in the basketball coaching world. Bay Area’s Brian Goorjian is no less than Australia’s national coach, who led the Boomers to their first and only Olympic medal in basketball in 2020. Ginebra’s Tim Cone is the most accomplished basketball guru in this country, winning the most titles in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA). Both teams too were steered by outstanding American imports – Myles Powell for the Dragons and Justin Brownlee for the Barangay. Powell played previously for the Philadelphia 76ers in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and also had a brief stint with the United States national team. Brownlee, on the other hand, is a well-loved import in the PBA, who is playing in his ninth tournament here, and winning the Best Import Award thrice already. And so, the stage was set for what both sides promised to be an unforgettable game.
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But when Brownlee made the first basket of the game, the entire Philippine Arena erupted. Said to be the world’s largest indoor arena with a maximum seating capacity of a whopping 55,000, the Philippine Arena was jam-packed with 54,589 screaming fans, a new PBA record eclipsing the 54,086 from the 2017 Governor’s Cup that Ginebra won over Meralco also in a Game 7. And we can all agree that at least 90% of the crowd was pro-Ginebra. At least.
The thunderous roar must have been nerve-racking for the Dragons, if not outright terrifying. After all, the live audience was more than twice the number seen in the other six finals games, which averaged close to 20,000. Facing a massive, hostile crowd can surely have its impact on the visiting team as Bay Area shot horribly at the beginning of the game. In contrast, Ginebra drew strength and inspiration from the highly partisan throng, immediately racing to a double-digit lead, mostly from the fired-up Brownlee. The American’s energy and grit were infectious as the locals joined in the fun to control the rest of the first half.
By halftime, Ginebra was up by 22, as the Gin Kings scorched the Bocaue, Bulacan hoops with 61 markers in just 24 minutes, while limiting Bay Area to only 39. Brownlee already had 24 points, 15 in the opening period. Also by halftime, Ginebra already made nine three-point shots, and on 50% shooting. In contrast, the Dragons’ vaunted long-distance bombs, which were instrumental in most of their wins, came few and far between, hitting only five out of 25 tries. And while Brownlee was sensational in the first two quarters, Powell was stymied by Ginebra’s tight defense, with only two field goals out of seven.
The onslaught continued in the third quarter, with Ginebra repeatedly dousing cold water on every Bay Area comeback attempt. Cone’s boys attacked on all fronts, from transition baskets to inside penetrations to outside sniping. At one point in the third canto, the difference ballooned to 28 points.
Bay Area never really gave up easily. They were playing way below par but surrender was never in their language. In the payoff period, Powell and Hayden Blankley tried to tow the Dragons to a last fight back. They managed to cut the deficit down to 14 in the middle of the fourth. But Ginebra would not willingly deny the hopeful sea of red a whale-size victory celebration. Ginebra annexed its 15th franchise PBA crown with an emphatic 114-99 win.
The numbers revealed that Ginebra shot a remarkable 46% from the field, including 13-of-30 from downtown, while the Dragons were only 39% with 11 triples out of 42 attempts. As a testament also to Ginebra’s splendid team game, the Gins finished with a sizzling 32 assists, 12 from Brownlee. Bay Area ended with 21 dimes, most of which came during its big rally in the fourth. Ginebra also outrebounded Bay Area, 60-53, including 23 offensive boards, 11 of which came from Jamie Malonzo.
Brownlee finished with 34 points, eight rebounds, and 12 dimes, while Malonzo added 22 markers and 17 boards. Also having big games were Scottie Thompson (18 points, nine rebounds), Japeth Aguilar (14 points), Christian Standhardinger (12 points), and LA Tenorio (10 points). On the other hand, the Dragons were led by Powell, who still came up with 29 points, followed by Blankley’s 25 and 7’5” Chinese behemoth Chuanxing Liu’s 17. However, they missed the usual major contributions from Kobey Lam and Songwei Zhu, who only scored 13 and 5 points respectively.
Cone earned his 25th PBA championship as head coach to further distance himself from the rest, while Brownlee seized his sixth in the league. Standhardinger was named Finals MVP after averaging 10.7 points, seven rebounds, and 2.7 assists.
There is surely no doubt that the Bay Area Dragons are a praiseworthy basketball team and their presence in the Commissioner’s Cup caught the attention of the entire league, teams and fans alike. Their brand of basketball is exciting, built on quick ball movement, superb outside shooting, and early offense. They even finished the elimination phase at the top spot. They were so good that many thought Ginebra was the clear underdog going into the finals. But they also had to battle through tremendous odds – injuries to key players, especially to 6’9” import Andrew Nicholson, changing rosters in the middle of the series, having to adjust to PBA rules, etc. – and still able to go the distance in the series.
But the Game 7 crowd was something the Bay Area Dragons had not seen before, Goorjian included. And it showed in their game. They simply were not prepared for such magnitude. Ginebra was.