MANILA, July 5, 2006 (STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - Red Bull and Purefoods are back in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Finals to renew a rivalry that started in the previous Fiesta Conference. No two teams have played in consecutive Finals since Alaska and San Miguel Beer went head-to-head in back-to-back conferences in 1998.

No doubt, Red Bull and Purefoods deserve to be in the Finals which begin today at the Araneta Coliseum.

The Chunkee Giants finished on top of the standings after the double-round classifications and earned the first outright semifinals ticket. Then, Purefoods came back from a 1-3 series deficit to beat Alaska thrice in a row in the semifinals to advance to the Last Dance.

Red Bull had a tougher climb. It managed to escape the wildcard phase but went through the wringer in surviving Barangay Ginebra in the quarterfinals. Red Bull was down, 1-2, in the best-of-5 series before crushing the Kings by 21 in Game 4 and by 22 in Game 5. Facing San Miguel Beer in the semifinals was another gut-wrencher as Red Bull clinched in seven.

Purefoods and Red Bull split their two classification outings. Purefoods drew first blood, 93-80, last March 31 as James Yap shot 21, Kerby Raymundo and Richard Yee netted 19 apiece and Marc Pingris chipped in 11. Red Bull got back at the Giants, 92-75, last May 14 with Lordy Tugade scattering 31 points to lead the attack.

Both teams lost key players to injuries en route to the Finals. Red Bull’s Rich Alvarez fractured his wrist in the San Miguel series while Purefoods’ Eugene Tejada dislocated his spine on a bad fall during the second Red Bull game in the classifications.

Purefoods coach Ryan Gregorio was able to sign up free agent Don Camaso to take Tejada’s spot on the roster but it was too late for Red Bull coach Yeng Guiao to replace Alvarez as the deadline to make roster changes had already lapsed.

Although Gregorio said the Giants aren’t dedicating their Finals campaign to Tejada, he admitted drawing inspiration from the stricken cager. When Purefoods fell behind 1-3 in the Alaska series, the team visited Tejada in the hospital for a spiritual lift. And the other day, the Giants visited Tejada again in a send-off for the Finals.

The Giants are wearing No. 33 patches on their jerseys for Tejada. Gregorio said it’s a reminder for the players to play as hard as Tejada.

"When we tied Alaska, 3-3, in the semis, we felt good about our situation because 33 is Eugene’s number," said Gregorio, hinting that Purefoods was fated to win Game 7.

It’s no secret that Purefoods will try to derive extra motivation from the fact that Tejada suffered his injury during a game against Red Bull. Payback could well be Purefoods’ battlecry.

Guiao said for sure, it will be an emotional series. And from all indications, it will be a war to end all wars.

Here’s how the teams measure up in 10 critical departments.

• Defense. No team plays with as much intensity in defense as Purefoods, probably because the Giants realize they must balance out their lack of firepower. Purefoods is the league’s No. 1 defensive team, allowing only 82.1 points a game. Red Bull gives up an average of 93.4. Edge: Purefoods.

• Firepower. Red Bull sizzles from all cylinders, averaging 96.5 Points–No. 2 behind Air21. Six Red Bull players are hitting at least 8.8 points a game, compared to only three from Purefoods. Not coincidentally, the Giants rank last in offense with an 83.9 clip. Edge: Red Bull.

• Rebounding. Without a legitimate center, Purefoods struggles under the boards. Red Bull’s Enrico Villanueva, Mick Pennisi and Paolo Bugia are tough to screen off for rebounds. Purefoods, by the way, ranks last in the league’s rebounding department. Edge: Red Bull.

• Bench. Even as Alvarez is out of the Finals, Red Bull’s bench is still deeper than Purefoods’. Every player in Guiao’s lineup has started at least once, including Hrabak, and no one has started in every game. James Yap and Raymundo have started in every game they’ve played this conference. Edge: Red Bull.

• Hunger. Purefoods hasn’t won a title since Gregorio’s debut conference in the 2002 Governors Cup. Before advancing to the Finals in the previous conference, Purefoods hadn’t qualified for the semis the last eight. The Giants are hungry for recognition. Edge: Purefoods.

• Coaching. Both Guiao and Gregorio are masters of the game. They’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs in their careers, making them tougher and smarter in the trenches. Their philosophies are different but they’re both as intelligent as they come. Edge: Even.

• Experience. Purefoods has five players in their 30s–Jun Limpot, 34, Rey Evangelista, 34, Arnold Gamboa, 33, Camaso, 33 and Noy Castillo, 31. Only one Red Bull player–Pennisi, 31–is in that category. While Purefoods enjoys the advantage in experience, it may not be a critical factor as Gamboa and Camaso hardly play. Edge: Purefoods.

• Chemistry. Tugade, Pennisi and Junthy Valenzuela have been teammates since 2000. Topex Robinson, Villanueva and Cyrus Baguio joined the trio in 2003. Even as Red Bull lists three rookies in Larry Fonacier, Paolo Bugia and Leo Najorda, the team plays with uncanny cohesion. Edge: Red Bull.

• Toughness. Both teams are capable of delivering under pressure. They proved it in the race to the Finals. The team that’s tougher mentally and physically will win the championship. Edge: Even.

• Matchups. The absence of a legitimate center is a distinct weakness for Purefoods and Red Bull will exploit it to the max. Red Bull has the advantage in size and heft. The problem that faces Purefoods is if it slows down the tempo, Red Bull will be better able to defend the half-court because the Barakos can set up with more time. Edge: Red Bull.

The barometers clearly point to a win for Red Bull but in an emotional Finals, anything can happen. Purefoods is on a mission of vengeance and may be more driven than Red Bull to sacrifice for victory. Whatever happens, it should be a heckuva series.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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