To say Meralco has had a roller coaster conference this 2016 PBA Commissioner’s Cup is a big understatement. And the team still has three games left in the elimination round.
Really, from a 1-10 showing in the Philippine Cup, not much was expected from coach Norman Black’s crew in the second conference. Add the fact that import Malcolm Thomas wound up injuring himself in a tuneup game right before the start of the competition, and Meralco’s chances of redemption were looking slimmer.
With the the management forced to scamper to find a plug, in stepped Arinze Onuaku, who arrived less than 24 hours before the Bolts’ first game of the conference. Just about everyone took the unfortunate import shuffle as a bad omen for things to come. But to everyone’s surprise, the opposite has panned out.
With quick pointers from Black under his belt, Onuaku tallied 25 points and 22 rebounds in his debut for Meralco. As he dropped the game-sealing baby hook with 17.4 seconds to lift Meralco over Star, 90-86, the big man set the tone for what has become a conference-leading charge.
“I’m just trying to push through, that’s all it was,” he said after the game. “I just tried to get it done.”
And the team continued to get it done, as wins continued to rack up.
The Bolts took advantage of an emotional TNT squad, 88-84, as the Tropa lost Ivan Johnson early in the game. They also squandered a 26-point lead but eked out a tough 98-95 victory over Rain or Shine three days after, before Chris Newsome starred in the end game of a close 90-87 win over Phoenix. Meralco also matched its franchise’s best start of 5-0, set last Commissioner’s Cup, with a killer end game run to put down GlobalPort, 96-88.
“We understand the format and importance of winning as many games as possible,” said Black, as his team sat firmly at the top of the standings.
But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.
Defending Philippine Cup champs San Miguel snapped the five-game winning run in Legazpi, 94-86, as the Bolts failed to out-steady a shaky Beermen crew out of town. Sister team NLEX doubled those woes, 104-99, as Meralco struggled to find its offensive rhythm in the payoff period. But the head coach wasn’t frazzled by the slump, instead eager to see how his players would respond.
“I’m more interested in seeing whether the players will react to a little adversity,” said Black. “It’s easy to move very smoothly when you’re winning. It’s only when you lose a game when you find out exactly what type of players you have: if they can handle adversity, if they can handle defeat, can they continue to work hard, stay focused, stay positive, bounce back, and win again.”
However, things took an unexpected twist along the way, with Gary David fined and handed a one-game suspension after he refused to enter late in the NLEX defeat. With back-to-back losses and a troubled veteran, what started as a pristine conference, was in danger of being turned inside out.
But without the Bataan gunner, Meralco still got back on the right track in the next outing with a 106-83 rout of Blackwater, thanks to the perfect 4-of-4 three-point shooting clip from Baser Amer.
Though Black admits the importance of David to the team, he acknowledges that there are able bodies who can step up and fill the hole left by his absence.
“I don’t think we have any problem with leadership. Jimmy (Alapag) is still here, Reynel Hugnatan is still here, so I don’t think that will be a problem with the team,” he said. “I don’t really see any special adjustments on my part to make up for the difference of Gary not being here. I’m sure the other players will pitch in.”
And as the team continues its break before returning to action on April 3 against Mahindra, and wrapping up the eliminations schedule against Alaska and Ginebra, what does Meralco have to do to finish strong and nab one of the elusive top two spots?
Black answers, “To be honest, we’re doing well this conference because of our defense. Our offense has been spotty at best.”
“If push comes to shove, we’ll just focus on getting the ball to Arinze because he’s the biggest, strongest guy in the league. We’ll basically run our offense through him.”
“Defense wins championships,” as the old saying goes, and for Black to repeat the success he had with his old teams here in Meralco, he needs his team to fully buy into his system and clamp down on the defensive end while still getting the much needed offensive bursts to outlast the competition.
With the way things have gone for the Bolts, the team which started from the bottom to start the conference is seemingly bound to have a big ride to the top. With the vital period of the competition looming, it will be interesting to see if the Bolts have what it takes to spark their way to championship-contender status.