Rejuvenated Meralco Bolts look to the finish line
MANILA, Philippines - “On a serious note, those two weeks… a blessing.”
That’s how Meralco Bolts forward Jared Dillinger described the 2015 PBA All-Star break.
While one of their comrades, Rey Guevarra, was flying high and throwing down 360-degree dunks in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and the rest of the league participated in numerous All-Star events that included a halftime dance show and multiple video-bombing sessions from the hilarious Joe Devance, the Bolts were back home in Manila, sweating through three-hour practices at the Meralco Gym, getting as much therapy as they could to remedy nagging injuries, preparing for the remainder of the 2015 PBA Commissioner’s Cup.
The Bolts needed the rest. They needed to rejuvenate.
After storming off to a surprising 5-0 start in the conference, the team lost their next two games - a blowout defeat at the hands of San Miguel, and an outclassing from Al Thornton and the NLEX Road Warriors. But what was more alarming than the added Ls on Meralco’s record was the way they played: they turned sloppy, the ball stopped moving, the defense was lackadaisical, and Josh Davis, their high-energy import who has changed everything for the Bolts, looked unhealthy.
So while their teammate retained his slam dunk title in the beaches down south of the country, Coach Norman Black and his boys were re-tuning. They were back to the drawing board.
The result? A 98-85 victory over the Barako Bull Energy on Friday, March 13, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
With all due respect to Barako, who have been much better this conference than they were in the Philippine Cup, the Energy isn’t the Purefoods Hotshots, Talk ’N Text Tropang Texters, or Rain or Shine Elasto Painters.
Even still: it wasn’t just that Meralco beat Barako; it’s how they came away with the win.
The wealth was shared, as the team compiled 19 assists and came up just two points short of a 100. Reynel Hugnatan, the 36-year-old veteran of the team, finished with 21 points on an effective 9-of-14 shooting display - mostly on open jumpers that haunted Solomon Alabi and the rest of his team all game.
“I think one of the main reasons why he played really well today was because we shared the basketball and he received a lot of passes wide-open for jump shots, which really helped us out,” Black would say after the contest.
Hugnatan’s explosion on Friday exemplifies a major aspect of the Bolts this conference. Outside of their consistent import, opponents don’t know which local will step up to the plate per match.
Jared Dillinger has yet to score in double-figures in any game this conference, but the Bolts still lead the league standings. Gary David has had his moments, and so has Mike Cortez, whose career has opened a new and positive chapter after failed stints with past teams. Cliff Hodge is producing. And even if he’s not scoring, his energy and relentless play has rubbed off on his teammates. John Wilson has come out of nowhere to provide firepower when needed. He might have the slowest and weirdest shooting form in the PBA, but leave him open from distance and he will knock in 3-balls. Even 40-year-old John Ferriols has played well in stretches.
That unpredictability on offense is predicated on the Bolts’ ball movement, yes. But to have that kind of unselfish play, Black needs guys willing to give up shots, minutes, and pride for the betterment of the team.
From Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs dynasties to the Grand Slam-winning San Mig Coffee Mixers of Tim Cone, a formula to attaining titles remains true until now: sacrifice.
The Bolts are aware of it. Better yet, they personify it on the court.
“Everyone’s on the same page. There’s a saying that winning cures everything. Whether we have a guy that plays one minute or we have a guy that’s playing 35 minutes, everyone understand that we all have the same goals and the same mission to get the championship,” Dillinger said after the win against Barako Bull.
“So everyone’s doing their part to make sure we’re on the same page to give everyone a piece.”
That means the guys aren’t thinking about individual accolades. For instance, take Gary David, who has proven this conference that he is anything but washed up, averaging 20.1 points per game on a 50% shooting clip, including 49% from long range.
Is he a candidate to win Best Player of the Conference? Absolutely.
Is obtaining that honor, one that’s so close right now, on his mind?
“Hindi, hindi ko iniisip yun,” he said. “As long as na maganda yung linalaro nang team. As long as we’re winning. Ang target ko ngayon is to get to the semis, tapos iisipin namin yung finals. Duon nalang. Yun lang yung focus ko ngayon.”
(I’m not thinking about that. As long as the team play is good, as long as we’re winning. My target is to get to the semis, then we’ll think about the finals. That’s my focus now.)
The mission for El Granada is simple: “Focus lang, keep winning lang.”
Winning has been easier this conference for the Bolts. Sure, a lineup composed of veterans and a multiple-time champion head coach in Black have been integral parts to their success. But the club needed an anchor, especially on defense. That anchor came in the form of Davis, whose contributions to the title-contending squad goes beyond what his 21.4 PPG and 16.6 RPG averages show.
“He brings that winning attitude. Josh is the type of you guy you don’t really call plays for, [but] he’ll still end up with 20 points, 15 rebounds, whatever, what not, everything to the smallest detail. He’s a hard-worker, he’s easy to talk to. He does what he’s told to do,” Dillinger said about his import.
“He’s the type of guy you want on a team when you try to contend for a championship and it rubs off on other guys on the team. We couldn’t ask any more from that guy. He’s doing everything and anything that we ask from him, and he’s coming to play every game.
“I know the management, the coaches, all the players, we’re all happy to have him on the team and we’re just glad we keep getting these wins.”
As Black said after the win against Meralco, his team was able to do what they wanted to accomplish on defense, where they limited Alabi to just 14 points and 12 rebounds, because of the presence of a healthy Davis.
“We executed our defensive game plan, which becomes a lot easier to execute because Josh Davis is there,” Black said about his big man, who rehabbed a severe left hip contusion over the break.
“I’ve said it before and I think you guys probably know this already, but Josh Davis is a pretty good player. He’s not a great offensive player in a sense he’s not going to shoot a lot of 3s or make a lot of outside shots, but he brings a lot of energy to the table. He makes us a much better defensive team because one, he controls the boards; and two, he’s very long.
“So even though he may not be one of the tallest imports here, he makes a lot of difference in the paint for us because of his length.”
Davis is back to full health, which he credits to ample amount of rest during the All-Star break, including a visit to a Philippine island for vacation, and the arrival of his girlfriend which, according to him, is “great.”
“It’s the first part of my family that’s come overseas with me, so it’s good. It inspires me to keep playing hard,” he said.
How well Davis has recuperated will be put to the test this week. The Bolts’ remaining schedule includes games against the Alaska Aces, Purefoods, and the Blackwater Elite. The last should be a sure victory. Wins against the first two will all but confirm that Meralco should be the favorite to win the title this conference. A win against one will put them in good position to finish with a top seed.
“Of course, it just gets more difficult - we have Alaska, Purefoods back to back. So this is a really big win for us going into those two games coming up next week,” Black said after beating Barako.
Alaska, though 3-6, is a championship-caliber squad that has been hit by unfortunate injuries. But the team looks to be getting back in shape, and the 6-3 Hotshots need no introduction about how deadly they can be, having just taken down Talk ’N Text in Davao City.
Are the upcoming challenges tough? Of course, and that’s intensified by the playoff positioning that’s on the line for Meralco. But are they intimidated? Absolutely not. Confident? You can bet on it.
“You always got to have good confidence, but more so than anything we’re just focusing on one game at a time and improving in practice,” said Davis.
“Yun yung mindset namin. Every game, treat as a playoff. Wala kaming iniisip na mag relax. Alam naman natin kung gaano kahirap yung playoffs pag dating yung laban. So ngayon palang, inuumpisa na namin,” says David.
(That’s our mindset. Every game, treat as a playoff. We’re not thinking about relaxing. We know how hard the playoffs get when we get to that point. So for now, we’re just starting.)
“Maganda yung depensa namin, tapos talagang kuha na namin yung sistema ni Coach Norman. Alam na namin kung ano yung gusto niya saamin.”
(Our defense is good, we’re starting to really get the system of Coach Norman. We know what he wants from us.)
“We make sure we play good defense. We make sure we try to share the ball. The games that we lose is when we don’t share the ball, we have a lot of turnovers, we don’t have any assists. So that’s really the formula for us: making sure everyone gets their touches, making sure that we play team defense. Pretty much that’s kind of our mentality right now,” argues Dillinger, who knows not many might think of Meralco as a title contender, but guarantees it doesn’t bother their close-knit team.
“At this point now, it’s just about really stepping up each game and grinding out these wins if you wanna stay out on top…” he said.
“A lot of people…that we hear outside of our organization [say] that we have no superstars, we have no main go-to-guys, or whatever, what not.”
Again - does that affect them?
Because, in Dillinger’s words, they “embrace that.”