MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Tropang TNT were down two key men yet they survived the relentless Carlo Lastimosa and the Blackwater Elite, 108-102, to open the 2016 PBA Commissioner's Cup on Wednesday, February 10 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
TNT, which changed its name this conference from Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters, made do without import Ivan Johnson, who was suspended for one game and was fined a total of Php 50,000 for a punching incident in a tune-up game against the Elite late in January.
They also compensated just enough for prized rookie Troy Rosario, who is still recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained in the team's final Philippine Cup game against Rain or Shine in phase 2 of the quarterfinals.
"Buti nakalusot na walang import (It's a good thing we made it even without an import)," head coach Jong Uichico said relieved. "Credit to the players na maski walang import laban pa rin sila (that even without an import they were persistent). We just had to adjust how to defend."
The defending champions had a character first win as they robbed Lastimosa of a highlight victory to match his career-high 39 points in a gallant fightback by Blackwater, coming back from 14 points down in the fourth.
Lastimosa, who surpassed his previous 38-point career-high just almost exactly two months ago, brought the Elite to within 100-96 with 3:02 left after being down 90-76 early in the fourth.
Ryan Reyes knocked down a triple for some cushion, 103-96, then Blackwater went on a 6-0 spurt to trail by just 103-102 over a minute to go.
Cue veteran Jayson Castro, who buried the dagger 3-pointer off an isolation play – his only basket in the second half after dropping 19 points in the first – to make it a 106-102 edge with 53 seconds to go. With the crucial trey Castro completed his total output of 22 points on top of 4 rebounds and two assists in 31 minutes.
More good news for TNT was the successful comeback of veteran forward Ranidel De Ocampo.
After being sidelined for almost 4 months due to a back injury, the Gilas Pilipinas mainstay didn't look like he missed a bit as he still charged down the lane and dropped 20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and two steals playing extended minutes (28:14) without import Johnson.
"We missed him really the last conference but now he’s back," Uichico said.
Ryan Reyes and Mo Tautuaa had 16 points apiece, while Kelly Williams and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser had 9 and 8 points, respectively.
Gilas cadet Rosario, who was drafted second overall in 2015 and found his way to TNT in a series of trades, is still on the injured/reserve list but is slowly being eased back into the team.
"He just joined practice," said Uichico, who noted they look to activate him soon. "We’re breaking him in little by little."
Lastimosa knocked down 4-of-7 triples and went 9-of-10 from the free throw line on top of 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 35 minutes for Blackwater, which had a breakthrough last conference as they made it to the playoffs for the first time.
The 23-year-old import MJ Rhett registered 16 points, 7 rebounds and a block in his PBA debut.
Reil Cervantes had 15 points and 4 rebounds off the bench, while Mike Cortez was close to a double-double with 14 markers and 8 assists. Art Dela Cruz added 11 points and 8 boards.
TNT (108): Castro 22, De Ocampo 20, Reyes R.16, Tautuaa 16, Williams 9, Rosser 8, Fonacier 7, Carey 6, Reyes J. 4, Ababou 0, Aban 0, Nuyles 0.
Blackwater (102): Lastimosa 39, Rhett 16, Cervantes 15, Cortez 14, Dela Cruz 11, Reyes 3, Gamalinda 2, Golla 2, Bulawan 0, Canada 0, Erram 0, Tiongson 0.
Quarter scores: 29-26, 52-44, 83-72, 108-102.