Ginebra's adjustment pains rage on
MANILA, Philippines – Back for the fourth time in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), Gabe Freeman soaked it all in.
He basked in an atmosphere unique to the historic Smart Araneta Coliseum; unique to Filipino basketball fans; and unique to his new team Barangay Ginebra San Miguel.
Freeman, 28, made a splash in his comeback by exploding for 17 points in the first quarter against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters on Sunday, April 20.
He egged on a boisterous crowd that gladly responded to him as he raised his hands up in the air. His energy was palpable. And although his team lost, Freeman, who finished with 29 points and 17 rebounds that game, oozed of intensity that traveled to the stands and flowed right back to him like a waterfall.
But that scene wouldn't happen again in his second game back, with Ginebra fighting to stay alive against the twice-to-beat and top-seeded Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters two days later on Tuesday night, April 22.
Freeman's return to the PBA was cut short as his team got ousted by the Texters, 97-84. It was a bitter ending to a conference that could have been.
With their conference on the line, Ginebra failed to give Talk 'N Text the fightback they should have displayed. Their opponents had their way on both ends of the floor and nothing, not even veteran Mark Caguioa's 19 points, could save Ginebra from the inevitable.
The Twin Towers of Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar combined for only 13 quiet points the entire night. They seemingly stood no chance against the frontline of import Richard Howell, Ranidel de Ocampo and Harvey Carey.
Prior to Tuesday night's game, Ginebra's third import Freeman vowed he and the team would work on bringing back the "Never Say Die" spirit that embodied the franchise.
"Critics have been saying we don't have that attitude no more, so we're going to instill that in us again," he declared.
And for a night, Freeman revived the seemingly failing heart of Ginebra with his intensity and feisty on-court attitude against Rain or Shine. After playing for other teams such as San Miguel Beermen and Barako Bull before, the 6-foot-5 native of Phoenix, Arizona is clearly well-versed with the kind of attitude Ginebra is known for as well as the energy they needed – and he was only all too excited to be a part of it.
"You gotta think I've been here for 6 years. I've played against Ginebra my first year and we beat them in the championship. They played hard then and many other conferences," explained Freeman, who hasn't played since November 2013 after he broke his hand during his stint at the National Basketball League of Canada.
"It makes it easier for me to play with them and that Never Say Die attitude. Now I'm a part of that. That makes me feel better. That makes me feel good as a professional athlete."
LA Tenorio came out of the locker room with the same look he had on his face more than two months ago, after their Game 7 semifinal loss to San Mig Coffee.
A different time, a different conference, a slightly different roster but still the same, if not worse, result.
"Kung iisa-isahin ko hindi tayo matatapos ngayon," said the 29-year old point guard when asked what has been the problem of Ginebra this conference. (If we go over it one by one, we will never finish right now.)
Adjustment, it seems, has been the major problem for the crowd darlings.
Ginebra, the team which seems destined to be on its way to great things when you look at their roster on paper, had a shaky run during the 2014 Commissioner's Cup conference.
They finished at 3-6 at the end of the eliminations, barely able to gain momentum heading into the playoffs, and they bowed out at just the first game in the quarterfinals.
That could be attributed to the fact they struggled mightily with their import.
"Number one (reason), hindi kami naging swerte sa import this conference," Tenorio lamented. "Sa very short conference naka-tatlong palit kami ng import." (Number one reason, we weren't lucky with our import this conference. In a very short conference we changed imports 3 times.)
This conference, Ginebra has gone through 3 imports with Freeman being the third. To start, they had offensive-minded Leon Rodgers, who averaged 30.33 points and 10.17 rebounds, per pba-online.net.
But after little success with him in 6 games, where Ginebra went 2-4, the team decided to bring in Josh Powell.
Luck still did not side with the Gin Kings.
After just one game, where he scored 16 points and grabbed 15 boards for an 88-78 win over the Meralco Bolts, Powell eventually got called up by the Houston Rockets as the NBA playoffs began, leaving Ginebra import-less in the crucial final stretch before the local payoffs.
That's when Ginebra decided to go with PBA veteran Freeman.
"Because of his experience playing in the PBA," coach Juno Sauler explained their decision. "And the energy and intensity that he can give, which is what he showed. And then also the time constraint, that's another factor. But also with what he's done in the past conferences."
Freeman normed a little over 22 points in his past three stints in the PBA since the 2008-2009 season. And for two games this conference, Freeman averaged 22 points as well.
Blending in the import
During the previous Philippine Cup, Ginebra, for the most part, was able to maximize its roster. And for the first time it seemed the team was on the fast lane to returning to its glory days.
Even when they fell short in the semis, the hope and the hype still would not die down. Next conference, the team's fans vowed, Ginebra will do better.
However, they couldn't seem to repeat their Philippine Cup performance as the insertion of an import into their system had only hampered their efforts to sustain their winning form.
With an import, Ginebra's offense wasn't as fluid.
Teeming with offensive threats, having an import limited ball movement and impeded the explosion of players off the bench – something that Ginebra had relied on during the Philippine Cup. The offense is now focused on the import. And that has been an adjustment Ginebra still could not get a handle on.
Once the ball made its way to the hands of the import, you could almost always expect him to take the shot, which countered the flow of their plays.
What Ginebra needed was an offensive minded import whose tendency was still to pass the ball first and involve the rest of the team. They also needed an explosive import who was an energizer bunny above all else.
Tenorio also noted their defensive lapses.
"We started flat (this conference) so I think we need to improve defensively and offensively. Our chemistry defensively is not there. So I think we need to improve on that."
He added, "Tingin ko naman nag-improve kami (I think we improved). Talk 'N Text was just too much for us."
The last time Ginebra had an import that worked well for them was for this same conference one year ago, with Vernon Macklin for the 2013 Commissioner's Cup.
In that storied conference, with Alfrancis Chua as the head coach, Ginebra wasn't exactly immune to bad luck and struggles, but they also weren't immune to Never Say Die.
With their leader Caguioa out for most of that conference due to an injured knee, his teammates rallied and overturned a similar twice-to-beat disadvantage in the quarterfinals as the 7th seed against Rain or Shine. They then continued their Cinderella run and overcame Talk 'N Text in the best-of-5 semis, 3-2.
Though they fell in the finals against Alaska, it was still a conference to remember. Macklin was their X-factor at the time. He was clicking with all of his teammates, especially with Tenorio, who often connected with him for lobs over opposing players.
What difference a whole year can do to a team.
'Best team in the PBA'
Freeman, who managed to figure in only 15 points and 22 rebounds in their ouster against Talk 'N Text, was still satisfied with how his new team played despite the loss.
In fact, he went on to declare that Ginebra "is the best team in the PBA."
According to him, talent-wise, Ginebra is a threat at every position. The team is loaded with good players that can take over at any time. The missing link, he says, is team cohesiveness.
"We gotta find a way to play with everybody," he explained. "We gotta get our bigs involved, we gotta start inside and work our way out. With great point guards, we gotta get them involved. We gotta get them in the mix."
Tenorio echoed the same sentiment for the team he believes will soon crack the code and will finally arrest the 6-year title drought.
"In terms of individual players, no doubt, we're the talented team," Tenorio said. "But talent is not enough."
'Soft' and 'lazy'
Just hours after Ginebra's sorry loss, veteran guard Caguioa lambasted his teammates on Twitter, saying that the Ginebra of today is far from the intimidating team it once was.
He said his teammates were "soft" and "lazy" and that even if the legendary Phil Jackson coached them, they still would not win.
Dati rati kinakatakutan itong team nato at iniilagan pero ngayon lahat ng team gusto kami kalaban ksi mga tamad and sobrang lalambot.— Mark Caguioa (@officialMC47) April 22, 2014
Kilala ba nila si Coach Sonny? Noli Locsin?Pido?Bal david? Rudy Distrito? Itong mga player nato makikipag palitan talaga ng mukha.— Mark Caguioa (@officialMC47) April 22, 2014
Wala ng ganitong players ngayon kung meron man hindi pinapalaro dahil nga parang nag popromote lang kami ng mga players ngayon.— Mark Caguioa (@officialMC47) April 22, 2014
Let me tell u guys kahit si Phil Jackson mag coach sa ganitong team hindi parin papasok sa semis. Walang mga puso mag laro WALA WALA WALA!— Mark Caguioa (@officialMC47) April 22, 2014
Ultimately, however, despite the many changes and the shaky adjustment period Ginebra is going through, Tenorio is able to see light at the end of the tunnel.
"Nakikita ko yung bright future ng team na 'to. And everyone is saying we're still adjusting kasi bago yung mga tauhan namin dito sa team. Makukuha din yan. Everyone naman talaga nagsa-start sa ilalim."
(I see a bright future for this team. And everyone is saying we're still adjusting because there are a lot of new people in the team. We will get there. Everyone naturally starts from the bottom.)
Never Say Die was seemingly absent for Ginebra the entire Commissioner's Cup. They were a much different team compared to who they were in the Philipine Cup.
The loss to Talk 'N Text summed up the story of Ginebra's mid-season conference – flashes of brilliance that could not be sustained.
They have the pieces that make up a champion team. But Ginebra will have to learn to make all those pieces function as one well-oiled unit – the kind that only comes with time and a collective committment by each and every member of the team to embrace the system.
Ironically, there isn't a more perfect time to for them to stick to their popular team mantra than when it is seemingly nowhere to be found.
"Sometimes you may have all the pieces to the puzzle but don't know the instructions to the puzzle," Freeman said it best. "On paper we're one of the best teams but on the court we gotta put it together." – Rappler.com