MANILA, Philippines – One scene keeps popping into my head when I relive the Meralco Bolts’ impressive victory over the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters on Tuesday, February 10.
With the game going down to the wire and the Bolts up only by 5, 85-80, 34-year-old veteran Reynel Hugnatan committed a foul on Rain or Shine import Rick Jackson physical enough that the game’s umpires debated whether it warranted a flagrant.
But before the referees could huddle up, Hugnatan and Jackson went chest-to-chest in a display of intimidation that has become a norm in a league like the PBA filled with physical plays from egoistic athletes.
It’s hard not to blame these players for bringing their egos into games; even NBA All-Star Kevin Love said it himself: to succeed in a highly-competitive professional basketball setting, you must be arrogant to a certain degree.
So there they were: two guys unwilling to show any vulnerability to the other while many spectators at the Smart Araneta Coliseum eagerly anticipated the victor of what had become a colossal showdown between two competitive teams.
But before anything could escalate, 24-year-old Meralco import Josh Davis stepped in and separated the two. As he held back his teammate and made sure there was enough distance between him and Jackson, he shook his head as if saying, “It’s not worth it.”
After the referees opted against issuing a flagrant, Jackson trooped to the line to make both charities. While he was doing so, Davis looked at Hugnatan again, lifted his finger, and tapped it on his right temple repeatedly. “Play smart,” he was probably telling his veteran teammate.
“I told him to keep his head and keep his composure and just focus on the next play because we were doing well at the moment,” Davis recalled the scene after the game.
The Bolts were down 11 entering the final quarter. But a 19-4 run powered by Davis’ all-around play and the brilliance of Mike Cortez in addition to contributions from the other locals had Meralco in the driver's seat to win their fourth straight game to open the 2015 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, extending a franchise record.
It’s unusual to see an import in the PBA with as much maturity as the San Diego State. You often hear about them guiltlessly coming late to practice, getting into fights with local teammates - there was one who even choked his comrade - being found intoxicated the morning of a game day, or taking 35 shots even if it ruins the team dynamic of the offense. But none of those substandard traits are associated with Davis.
“I’m very, very happy with Josh Davis at this point. I have no complaints at all, that’s for sure,” said his head coach, Norman Black.
He carries himself with a silent but confident demeanor that has rubbed off on the rest of his team. He has been a role model in practice, constantly looking for ways to improve on his game, someone who has shown respect for authority, and someone who realizes how lucky he is to play professional basketball in the Philippines.
"I’m blessed to have the opportunity to be a part of a great franchise and to make history, really. It’s just a blessing,” Davis told the media after the win against ROS.
So far, his marriage with Meralco has been a fruitful one both on and off the court. But even better, his abilities are the missing piece the Bolts need in their construction of a roster that contends for a PBA championship.
Meralco’s defensive rating: 93.6, fourth best in the PBA
We’re a little more than a third into the elimination round of the second conference and the Bolts have proven that they’re the best team in the league so far. Their 4-0 record tops the PBA along with Purefoods, but it isn’t a product of lucky bounces or taking advantage of easy opponents.
They’ve secured two double-digit wins against KIA (without Cortez) and Barangay Ginebra. They've defeated Talk ’N Text and Rain or Shine, both title contenders, by 8 and 5 points, respectively.
What’s been clicking? How have the Bolts secured victories despite the absence of a clear-cut MVP candidate like a June Mar Fajardo or a Calvin Abueva? Sure, Gary David’s scoring resurgence (18.5 PPG) has helped, but it’s not the main cause of the wins. David didn’t even play the entire fourth quarter against Rain or Shine, when the Bolts took over the match.
The answer? It starts with one of the oldest saying in basketball: “Defense wins championships.”
“I think it’s that everybody’s starting to play defense as a team,” says starting point guard Mike Cortez, who’s averaging a steal per game in addition to 12.0 PPG and 4.7 APG this conference. “Everyone’s on the same page defensively. That’s what we want to hang our hat on going into every game - it’s our defense. Everyone has to be on the same page.”
Meralco’s defense is allowing just 81 PPG on just 40% shooting this conference. They’ve also been defending well without fouling, giving up just 23 attempts at the foul line per contest, which is currently fourth best in the PBA.
Pulling down offensive rebounds against the Bolts is also tough as nails, as they’ve only allowed 13.5 per game. Taking advantage of those rebounds is even tougher, since Coach Black’s team is allowing just 9 second chance points per match - best in the PBA.
A lot of their stellar play on the defensive side of the floor is due to Davis, who entered the PBA with a defensive-minded reputation and two nicknames: “Kawhi Leonard 2.0,” and “The Rebounding Demon.” So far, all have held true: Davis is grabbing 18.5 RPG to go with his 20.8 PPG, 3.5 SPG, 1.8 BPG, and 1.5 APG.
“I think that’s why we’re 4-0. Josh Davis cleans up a lot for us on defense. He’s so wire-y and so energetic that he can help and get back and get the rebounds and we can run,” says Cortez. “It’s just more chemistry on the floor and our defense, [that’s] why we’re 4-0.”
“We’re keeping it simple,” says Jared Dillinger, who’s played only half of his team’s games this conference. “We’re not asking one guy to do everything for us. I mean, obviously, it also helps having an import like Josh that can really do a little bit of everything, especially on defense, so it helps us on the defensive side.”
The Elasto Painters cracked at least 20 points in each of the first three quarters against the Bolts, which was a huge proponent why they were up 73-62 entering the final quarter. But in those last 12 minutes, Meralco’s defense tightened up, allowing just 14 points.
“In the second half we just made some adjustments defensively and it made a big difference in the game for us,” said Black.
“A lot of credit also goes to our defense in the fourth quarter cause that really made the difference… that’s really the reason why we won the game.”
Black is right. Davis was superb on defense when it came to crunch time against Rain or Shine, much like he’s been these past few weeks. He can guard any opposing import one-on-one, and his rebounding prowess has guaranteed Bolts opponents get just one shot per possession most of the time - an underrated aspect to gauge how good a defense is.
And he’s been surprisingly better than anticipated on offense (more on this later) all throughout the conference. The same goes for David, Cortez, and the rest of the roster that has so far had a guy or two ready to deliver at any time, such as when PBA journeyman Jai Reyes put up 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists against KIA in Cortez’s absence.
But the defense is what runs Meralco’s engine. And that’s great news for Bolts fans, considering the oldest saying in basketball has remained consistent throughout the history of the game, despite how much it changes.
Meralco’s offensive rating: 103.5, second best in the PBA
While stopping the opposition from scoring is the most valuable aspect to winning games, teams obviously still have to put the ball in the hoop. Fortunately for Meralco, they’ve done just enough of that.
The trio of Davis, David, and Cortez is combining to score 50 of Meralco’s fourth-best 89.5 PPG this conference. But as previously mentioned, the team has been receiving ample contributions from other guys as well.
In the Bolts’ wins over TNT and ROS, Cliff Hodge scored a combined 21 points. John Wilson and Sean Anthony have been consistent with their scoring as well in the Commissioner’s Cup, putting up a total of 12 PPG. Dillinger, once he fully recovers from his knee injury, will also have huge scoring nights.
“I mean, [like in our win Rain or Shine], Gary David is our leading scorer [and] he didn’t play the whole fourth quarter,” says Dillinger. “So it just shows how everyone can contribute. Everyone can stay in their lane and do their part. I think that’s the biggest thing with this team: we don’t need to rely on three guys.”
The image above is a breakdown of the Bolts’ shooting chart so far this conference
The team is making a fifth-best 6.5 three-pointers a game on a league-best 36% clip - 4% higher than the second club in the list, Rain or Shine. As indicated by the shot chart above - courtesy of humblebola.com - the Bolts have also been a menace with their mid-range jumpers, a lot of which are uncontested, thanks to Davis’ ability to draw multiple defenders when he drives to the rim. And when only one defender is on him, he’s made them pay by converting under the rim.
“Davis is a good player. And even in the States, he was a good player, particularly defensively and rebounding the basketball. He has a reputation in those areas. He’s not really a go-to-guy on offense where you just give him the ball and ask him to score 40 points for you, but he can score the basketball, particularly when he’s driving to the basket,” says Black.
Rain or Shine had no answer for Davis in the fourth quarter. He was all over the floor: blocking shots, forcing turnovers, switching out on ball handlers in pick-and-rolls, and, of course, rebounding. And when his team needed baskets, the Elasto Painters could not stop him from getting to the rim as Jackson was too slow-footed to contain him. When they sent double teams, he kicked out to Cortez for easy jumpers. And when they fouled him, he made them pay at the free throw line.
“He was able to put the points on the board for us and help us win the basketball game,” said Black.
His FT shooting is interesting to note. The one weakness stamped on his scouting report prior to the conference was his inability to sink free throws, and after going 9-of-16 in his debut against Ginebra, it seemed that his critics were right.
But it didn’t take long for Davis to quiet his naysayers, as he responded by shooting 9-of-10 from the line in his team’s next game against KIA, 6-of-9 against TNT, and then 13-of-15 against ROS, most of which came at crucial stages late in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
“What he works on a lot in practice is his free throw shooting. He came into the PBA with a reputation of not being a very good free throw shooter, but so far he’s been respectable, and that’s mainly because he probably takes about 200 a day,” Black said about his import.
And even on days he isn’t exactly clicking from the field, his presence can still be felt in the game.
“He does a lot of things for us. I mean, last game, we won the game, but Josh shot 1-of-9 from the field, and we still won,” said Dillinger.
“He does a lot of things that you don’t see on paper that really correlates to wins. He runs the floor really hard. He sets good screens. He has a good attitude. He plays hard through every play. It’s those little things - the small details - which you can see which correlates to wins, and I think that’s what’s going on right now.”
“I just play hard every possession,” says Davis. “When I get every opportunity to score, I try to score. I do whatever I do to help my team win the game.”
'We work hard but we know we still got a long way to go'
Prior to the Commissioner’s Cup, not many pundits were comfortable to say, “Meralco might win the championship this conference,” and it wasn’t hard to blame them. Since their induction to the PBA in 2010, the Bolts haven't exactly played like legitimate title contenders bowing out early in the playoffs.
Why choose them to win the title when Purefoods showed signs of coming back strong? When Alaska has improved under Alex Compton? When San Miguel has the best local player in the PBA today? When Richard Howell has returned to bolster TNT? When Rain or Shine’s championship-contending lineup remains intact?
But four games in, the Bolts are turning heads. The names on the team’s roster are no longer the most eye-catching, but their pieces fit well. They have a guy who can distribute the rock in (Cortez), someone who can score at any time (David, Dillinger), a bench that is ready to contribute at any moment, a head coach who knows what it takes to win championships, and an import who complements the entire team.
“I just try to prepare my team the best I can and hope for the best once we get out on the basketball court. I do know that we’ve been having really good practices of late. Offensively, defensively, guys have really been in tuned, they’ve really been executing,” said Black, a 10-time champion who’s searching for his first PBA ring in more than 10 years.
“I think the morale is pretty high,” says Cortez, who has also used this conference as a bounce-back campaign. “Especially in the locker room. Guys in practice are high that we’re [undefeated], but the good thing about it is guys are still working hard. Guys are still pushing in practice. Guys are still making each other work. So we just want to keep the momentum going.”
He’s correct. Meralco can find solace in their hot start to the second conference, but they still have weaknesses they need to work on. The Bolts are giving up the third most made triples this conference at 9.3 per game, and their opponents have attempted an average of 24.8 three-balls against them due to their bad tendency to be late on closing out to shooters.
In the shot chart above - courtesy of humblebola.com - ROS took a lot of shots from deep in their game against Meralco due to the Bolts’ lackadaisical perimeter defense. In the fourth quarter, Paul Lee missed two open 3-balls and Ryan Arana missed another that could have switch the result of the game had they gone in.
“… we also did not do a very good job of closing out on their shooters from the perimeter,” Black even admitted after the match.
They’re aware of this. And more importantly, they’re aware of how quick their fortunes can change. “We want to take it one game at a time. It doesn’t really matter that we’re 4-0. We just gotta keep playing one game at a time. As easily you can win 4-0, you can easily lose four straight,” says Cortez.
“So we just gotta keep working hard in practice and try to get guys healthy. I’m a little banged up, [Dillinger’s] a little banged up, Cliff’s banged up, so hopefully with our time off we can just get our guys healthy and keep pushing, keep the train moving.”
“We need to work on the small things and it starts in practice, so we gotta get better every day in practice, and it will translate to the game,” said Davis, who later added: “We work hard but we know we still got a long way to go, so we’re just going to continue to get back in the gym and improve our games.”
Meralco certainly can’t take a breather any time soon. They’ve already defeated Talk ’N Text and Rain or Shine - “two of the best teams in the league,” says Black - but a number of gruelling tests remain in the Star Hotshots, Aces, Beermen, and even the 2-2 GlobalPort Batang Pier, who they will face on Sunday, February 15.
“We still have a lot of good teams on the list coming up - we still got Purefoods, we still have San Miguel, we still have Alaska,” Black said. “Not to put down any of the other teams, but we know those teams to be powerhouse teams. So every time you can beat a powerhouse team, then you’ve actually accomplished something - typically for your confidence.”
No one is sure how well the Bolts will do against those teams, or if they’re going to continue piling up wins at their expense. But what Black can be assured of is that his team is confident they can step up against anyone.
More importantly, they know they have the capability to beat anyone.
“You have to have that confidence in order to win,” Davis explained his team’s mentality. “All the greatest, they have that confidence that they’re better than anyone.”
And Meralco wants to be the known as the greatest at the end of this conference, even if they won’t admit it right now. The point of being in the PBA is to win the title, and right now, the Bolts have a great shot of doing that.
The PBA is filled with athletes that have egos, but Meralco’s players made sure to check theirs out at the door.
To them, it doesn’t matter who scores the most points in a win or who gets the spotlight after.
They’re a group of veterans who have been mixed with an import that’s mature ahead of his age and has the talents to spearhead this club to a championship.
They’re unselfish, they play hard, the play the right way, and they play for each other.
So, with all the ingredients there to win a title, why not pick Meralco?
Why not, indeed.