MANILA, Philippines – Sol Mercado is playing the conference of his life in this 2016 PBA Governors' Cup.
The 32-year-old guard has grown into one of Barangay Ginebra's go-to guys and has taken a number of big shots for the Gin Kings this season.
But on Sunday, October 9, during Game 2 of the Finals, after making the go-ahead clutch shot inside the final 30 seconds, Mercado drew more attention to his defensive work on newly minted Best Import Allen Durham of the Meralco Bolts.
"We changed the matchups a little bit (this game), let Sol go after Allen. He did a great job limiting his touches," head coach Tim Cone praised Mercado after Ginebra's 82-79 victory to level the best-of-7 series at 1-1.
"In the times Durham got by Sol, which wasn't very often, but by the time he got by Sol there was either Justin (Brownlee) or Japeth (Aguilar) there at the rim trying to (guard) him.
"You got to give that credit to Sol. Because it was such a defensive-oriented game, I think you give it to the best defense and he was really our MVP (in this game)."
In the ensuing play after his go-ahead putback permanently gave Ginebra an 81-79 lead with 28.2 seconds remaining, Mercado stayed in front of his man Durham as the import awaited the ball.
Durham received the pass from Jimmy Alapag on the right wing as Mercado stayed low in anticipation. Alapag and Durham passed back and forth one more time before the 6-foot-5 Durham turned his back and began posting up on the 6-foot-1 Mercado.
Mercado made sure to keep one hand up and never gave so much as an inch of space to Durham. In Durham's final move in the paint, big man Japeth Aguilar was right there for the help.
Durham pump-faked to throw Aguilar off but Mercado stayed with the import, raising both hands and using his entire body to defend. Durham's jump shot attempt had no lift and the ball bounced off the rim, avoiding a potential second straight overtime game.
"From the beginning I started on Durham, just trying to get him out of his spots, fronting him and try to make him work. I was trying to run him out of the perimeter, stay in front of him, he’s a really good player," Mercado explained.
"With Durham he likes to get on the block and I just hope my teammates are there. It wasn’t just me guarding him it was all 5 of us, it was a collective team effort to guard him and we're able to at least to hold him down a little bit."
Durham was certainly held down in Game 2 with just 22 points on 10-of-24 shooting compared to his 46-point explosion in Game 1.
Defending Durham was one challenge Mercado refused to back down from.
"In practice, I told coach Richard, I just want to take the challenge. I said if you guys want me to defend Durham, I'm ready," Mercado shared.
"Coach Tim put that trust on me and before the game he said I was going to start on him, so I was excited and took the challenge.
"If we were in a park playing one-on-one, Durham will destroy me, but it's a team effort, it's a 5-man defense."
Not an import-stopper
Mercado is no stranger to guarding imports after having taken on Elijah Millsap in the semifinals against San Miguel Beer. But he would be the last person to proclaim himself an "import-stopper."
"I wouldn’t say I'm an import-stopper, it takes a whole team to do that, they’re imports for a reason," he said. "That guy’s (Durham) the Best Import this conference for a reason. We try to collectively do it, I'm just the guy who stays in front."
Mercado did not guard Durham all of Game 2 as Ginebra made it a point to give the import different looks that included Brownlee and Aguilar. He expects the same trend to continue in the series.
"I take pride on my defense, especially being able to stay in front of bigger guys and being able to use my strength to not let them get to spots they want," he said.
Mercado, who finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in Game 2, credits his growth on the defensive end to Cone for believing in him enough to push him to open up a new frontier in his game.
"I was really never taught to be a defensive player. When I first came to the league my focus was offense so coach Tim really put a lot of belief on my defense and worked (on it)," he said.
"I'm just trying to do my job. Coach Tim entrusted me the responsibility and I tried to take the challenge head on, and it kind of feels good, kind of making your dad proud." – Rappler.com