Feeling helpless but still trying to help his team in whatever way possible, Jared Dillinger – who has been out of the semifinals after a knee injury – gathered the Meralco Bolts before Game 3 and told them to keep it simple before they walked along the corridor and on to the Smart Araneta Coliseum floor.
With Josh Davis suddenly sidelined due to a shoulder injury, the Bolts – down 0-2 in the best-of-five series – entered Game 3 with only a few personal expectations to meet.
“When you’re down 0-2, you just have to keep things simple and come out with a lot of effort and energy. When Coach (Norman Black) told us that Josh is out, we know everyone will get to contribute and we need to elevate our games for Josh being absent,” Dillinger said.
Rain or Shine eventually brushed off the Bolts, 107-98, completing a sweep and advancing to the finals but the shutout was not enough to overshadow the accomplishments the Bolts have put together as a team this conference.
Playing import-less, the Bolts drew big games from Cliff Hodge (20 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists), Mark Macapagal (20 points, 4/8 three-pointers), and Reynel Hugnatan (19 points, 7 rebounds).
The individual performances may not have been enough to salvage a victory, but they were more than enough to validate the kind of team Meralco is: a team that is ready to breakout.
When the Bolts rallied back from an 11-29 deficit and even took the lead to give the Elasto Painters a huge scare, it was a microcosm of how the squad fought valiantly this conference while lacking the tools of an elite team.
“Being positive, it is a great stepping stone. When you do well this conference, the other teams will look at you and say we can’t take this team lightly anymore,” Dillinger added.
When Norman Black took over the coaching chores this season and saw the composition of the team he is going to lead, the multi-titled mentor and ex-PBA pro realized he had to work with what he has.
It is hard to compete with your primary point guard being about a decade older than the league’s best backcourt generals. It is difficult to outscore foes with limited options on offense. It is hard to think about winning when your frontline is composed merely of bigs who are over the hill and undersized with respect to today’s competition. It is hard to think of making it big when your bench guys are free agents and the other teams’ benches have all-stars. Running up and down the floor with a unit that’s aging is simply fantasy.
On paper, Meralco is only the no. 8 offensive team and no. 7 defensive team in the league, although Black – through his seemingly magical ways – made everything work and the Bolts have overachieved.
“From what we’ve achieved, we did pretty well. We made The Final Four which is important for our progress and our growth but when it comes to the talent, I think we have ways to go. It’s a young man’s game,” Black said.
“Basketball is all about talent. If you can recruit the best talent, you can have a better chance of winning. When I coached in Ateneo and San Miguel, we were talent-laden. We had skilled players and that’s where it all comes down.”
A 5-0 start, a semifinals appearance, and even dethroning the defending Philippine Cup champion the past conference when they were the second-worst All-Filipino team a season ago.
From an uninspiring 2014 season, the Bolts are slowly becoming a part of the conversation. Being in the top four this conference means relevance for the team. The only thing left to do is to take it to the next level. It is surely easier said than done, but they have made the critical first step.
“It’s a good start for us. We went 5-0, a couple of guys got hurt, and (Rain or Shine) is experienced so we got rattled but we are coming together as a team, that’s the main thing I see from it. We have two draft picks in this upcoming draft so we will continue working on what we have. To be able to take it to the next level, we have to build on the (players we get) from the draft and evelate our game,” Cliff Hodge concluded.
What more could this team achieve with fresher legs, more talent, and better tools? The Bolts are out of the race for a title, but are definitely part of the conversation for the conferences to come.
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