NLEX is a team full of good pieces that make a great run in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup. In fact, they entered the semifinals of this conference last year with practically the same core, back when the team was known as the Air21 Express.
This time, they have an excellent one-on-one guy in Al Thornton who can shoot from any spot on the court and finish around the rim. They have a veteran point guard in Jonas Villanueva whose 22.2 percent assist rate is no. 8 in the league among guards. They have a couple of floor spacers like Aldrech Ramos and KG Canaleta who can both hit the three, a huge center in Asi Taulava, and another penetrator in Mac Cardona. With this rotation, the Road Warriors would have made a decent run in the playoffs.
However, the team started flat in this conference, losing four out of its first five games. The Road Warriors shot just 37.1 percent from the field and only had 10.5 assists in those four losses.
A key trend from those first five games, was the lack of ball movement and too much one-on-one and isolation plays. It didn’t work well for the Road Warriors, who were outscored by opponents by 8.25 points in those four losses. NLEX, in addition, is dead last in average assists in the league.
Everything changed when Boyet Fernandez’s troops opted to share the leather and reduce the number of forced shots. The team started rolling and have won five in a row to enter the upper half of the PBA team standings with a 6-4 card. They have locked a spot in the playoffs, and it was their unselfishness that propelled them in those matches.
“We’re preaching about sharing the ball now, due to the fact that we are the last team in assists in this league. We tried to move the ball around,” Fernandez said after NLEX defeated Kia, 102-86.
“I told Asi [Taulava] to go wrestle PJ [Ramos] inside the post, so he that can’t block shots during penetrations. KG [Canaleta] and Jonas [Villanueva] are playing consistently as well so just hope we continue moving the ball and improve our assists per game.”
Instead of forcing the issue, the Road Warriors would locate the open man and move the ball to make the opposing squad’s defense work. In the six wins NLEX had, they were averaging slightly better from the field (43.8 percent) and in assists (13.7 including 16 APG in the last two wins).
Against Globalport last week, NLEX assisted on 18 of its 35 field goals for a 51.4 percent assist rate, which is above the 49.9 league average. [READ: Canaleta drops 29 as Road Warriors get fourth straight win]
It wasn’t a completely smooth ride against Kia last Wednesday. Al Thornton took a lot of forced shots in the first half in front of defenders which closed him out pretty well. Thornton only had eight points at halftime on 2-for-14 shooting.
However in the second half, coupled with a conscious effort to defend with a lot of energy, the Road Warriors got more open looks at the basket. Thornton exploded for 25 points to finish with 33 overall, and shot 7-for-11 to grab the lead.
Jonas Villanueva also dished out 20 points, five assists, and four steals. In the last five games, Villanueva has an impressive assist rate of 25.84 percent while keeping his usage rate down.
Five Road Warriors finished in double digits against the Carnival: Thornton (33), Villanueva (20), Cardona (16), Lingganay (12), and Taulava (10).
While still the worst team in average assists, the Road Warriors are actually no. 1 in offensive rating (106.3 points per 100 possessions) and if they want to make it deep into the playoffs, they have to keep sharing the rock.