This appears on philstar.com
The hungry Meralco Bolts look to nail their first championship berth
by rick olivares
This Commissioner’s Cup Conference is turning out to be the best ever outing for the Meralco Bolts. After that scintillating 86-70 win over the Alaska Aces last Monday night to send the semifinals series to a Game Five where the winner advances to the Finals, the Bolts are reinvigorated for one last push.
It is to date, their biggest win as it virtually put them in a position to advance. Of course, Game 5, by virtue of its importance, supersedes the previous match as their biggest one now. Furthermore, this time around, the Bolts have taken three of five matches so far (including the eliminations) from Alaska, a perpetual nemesis. You can bet that they have the confidence and knowledge that they can win.
Some of the holdovers from this team was a part of the squad that made the semis of last season’s Commissioner’s Cup yet they were quickly scuttled by Rain or Shine in three. So after years of underachieving, Meralco is looking to break new ground.
I thought that a couple of things worked in Meralco’s favor:
The outside shooters hit some timely and huge shots
They were able to get to the basket
Arinze Onuaku came up big again with 16 points and 16 rebounds
Strong veteran play
Calvin Abueva had a quiet game.
For Meralco to get its game going, outside Onuaku’s post-match, head coach Norman Black needs to have his players on the receiving end of a kick out hit shots. All conference long, players like Cliff Hodge, Reynel Hugnatan, and Bryan Faundo (and Ken Bono to an extent) have hit some huge medium range shots. When they are making them, including the three-point artillery, it opens up the lane for Onuaku to operate.
Having said that, the three-point bombs of Jared Dillinger were massive as the Aces had to make sure he was guarded.
Players like Dillinger and rookie Chris Newsome are important not only for their ability to hit the outside shot but also because they can bring up the ball and pass and attack that basket. Newsome, Dillinger, or even Jimmy Alapag missed some layups but they were getting inside that means Alaska has to do a better job at closing down the lane. The aggressiveness inside opens up opportunities and creates openings. That leaves teams second guessing themselves on defense; in Alaska’s case, playing a 2-3 zone that is why later in the match, Dillinger and Alapag (and Anjo Caram) were big zone breakers for Black.
As for Onuaku, the nightly double doubles, his presence has been perfect for this center-challenged team.
While the future of Meralco lies with Newsome and point guard Baser Amer and fourth-year man, Cliff Hodge, the veteran play is very much a key ingredient. There are the usual contributions of Dillinger and Alapag as well as Hugnatan and Faundo. Both have to double time as Kelly Nabong is still out because of injury and Rabeh Al-Hussaini just got back after dealing with a severely sprained ankle.
Hugnatan and Faundo combined for 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 1 assist. Even better, they were relatively free from fouls and thus, stayed longer in the game giving Onuaku some space while guarding the likes of Rob Dozier and Sonny Thoss.
Since Calvin Abueva was drafted by Alaska, he’s been this team’s catalyst. His aggressiveness, high energy plays, and willingness to do the dirty work and drive the lane have made the Aces a perennial contender, although they have one championship in four appearances to show for it.
The man they call “the Beast” had somewhat of a quiet match although there was an instance in the fourth period where he galvanized the team with some heady play. Abueva finished with 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals versus 2 turnovers. That might be a good stat for other players but not Abueva.
The Beast has been averaging 18 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 2 steals an outing against Meralco so you can see the drop off in his contributions. Cyrus Baguio used to be that catalyst but he is not the player he was when he was playing for Red Bull where his nightly exploits were devastating. I’d chalk that up to the more free-wheeling offense employed by that team under Yeng Guiao. Theoretically, he should have continued those high scoring ways with Ginebra but at the time that he was there, Jayjay Helterbrand and Mark Caguiao were still solid contributors. With Alaska, they seem to be far and few in between.
Chris Banchero is another big time scorer but Alaska through the years have always gotten by through the strong but inspirational play — with some razzle dazzle to their game — of people like Johnny Abarrientos, LA Tenorio and Willie Miller, and now Abueva.
On Wednesday, May 4, the Bolts hope to end their Finals appearance drought (in their sixth PBA season). So far, they have lost the odd-number games. But knowing Norman Black, he doesn’t put his faith in such coincidences. He knows his Bolts are motivated.
When they started out the 2015-16 season, the goal was just to get better game by game, conference by conference. From the depths of the Philippine Cup, the Meralco Bolts are now on the verge of their first ever finals berth. In the midst of their five-match win streak to start the conference, Dillinger reflected on their good fortune and showing by saying, “Winning is nice for a change. I think I may have forgotten that since my days in Talk ’N Text.”
When the Bolts advanced deep in the playoffs, Dillinger added, “We just wanted to get out of the rut we were in. Now that we’re out, we want to climb even higher."
Isn’t it obvious. These Bolts are hungry.