I watched the Phoenix Fuel Masters’ game in the PBA last Wednesday, Feb 7, and it didn’t disappoint. Up against the veteran TNT Ka Tropa team, they were forced to take the catch-up role from the start till the last few seconds of the match. That’s when they uncorked a seldom-seen facet in their game – a grind-it-to-the-ground grit that would result to a fantastic Houdini escape act 74-72.
The Fuel Masters had never won against TNT since they joined the league in the 2015 season. In their last encounter, TNT had given them another masterful lesson with a humbling 117-98 beating. It seemed that TNT would always be able to figure them out.
But new coach Louie Alas would have none of that. Trailing by as much as 13 points, and 40-30 at halftime, Coach Louie must have touched a raw nerve among the players during the halftime break, as they came out of the dugout with murder in their eyes.
The defense started to clamp up, and this set the tone for the rest of the evening. Gelo Alolino took over the point guard chores and imposed his physicality over the vastly improved Roger Pogoy and the veteran RR Garcia. Coach Louie opted against matching him up against the dreaded Jason Castro, and instead pitted him against the TNT 2’s.
Instead, it was Matthew Wright that hounded Castro no end, limiting the man they call ‘The Blur’ to a measly 9 points. Matthew’s sound laterals denied Jason of his shifty drive-and-draw, forcing TNT to get their offense elsewhere. Matt has proven that he is not just an offensive weapon, he can be relied on to play solid defense.
Jeff Chan, never known for his defensive prowess – and now matched up against the relatively bigger forwards of TNT – was a pleasant surprise. Using his veteran smarts and fundamental positioning, he played a big role in the interiors, even snagging a handful of defensive rebounds. An even more pleasant surprise, Jeff led everyone else in the assists department with 6, giving us an idea of how to optimize on this lethal shooter-passer in the future.
And then there was the big-bodied rookie, Jason Perkins. Perkins’ burly presence has bolstered the interior defense significantly, despite his lack of ceiling. Jason is a prototype Draymond Green; small, fast, yet able to bang bodies and guard the bigs of the opposing teams. He will be a big part of Phoenix’ bright future.
When Phoenix got the ball with 19 seconds and the score tied at 72-all, Coach Louie devised a last-second shot play for Matthew. But he told him to expect the double-team. He told him Matt to find the open man once that happens. True enough, the blitz set in. Mathew flicked a pass to Doug Kramer – the guy least expected to be given the crucial shot – who then rolled the ball towards the basket. Bingo!!! Kramer becomes the unlikely hero in an unexpected twist to an unusual game.
Admittedly, Phoenix’ offense still needs more polishing. But the solid improvement on the defensive end employed by Coach Alas is a good cornerstone for the future. Given 1 or two more decent bigs, Phoenix could be right up there with PBA’s elite teams.
Phoenix is an exciting new team that has to play small-ball like the Golden State Warriors. They have a more-than adequate point-guard squad in LA Revilla, RJ Jazul and Gelo; a talent-laden wing crew led by Matt, Jeff, JC Intal; but a ceiling-beleaguered frontcourt with Justin Chua (6’6”) and Doug Kramer (6’5”) coming in as the team’s tallest.
My take, moving forward? I’d like to be more audacious with this small team. I’d like to see the Matt-and-Jeff tandem play reversible combo-guard roles together. Ditto with RJ and Gelo. I’d like to see more minutes for a beefed-up JC Intal (but he does need to get 10-15 pounds heavier). I’d like to see Willy Wilson slide down to the 3 to spell out JC. I’d also like to see Joseph Eriobu beef up so he can spell Perkins better. And I’d like to see Justin Chua taking more mid-range and possibly 3-point bombs. On the defensive end, more traps, more double-teams, more switching, more help-defense. More movement. Ultimately, this will mean a faster pace and a faster rotation. And of course, a couple more bigs.
Down by 10 at the half, up against a taller (Tautuaa, Rosario, Semerad), heftier (Garcia, Pogoy, Carey) more savvy crew (Castro, Williams); Phoenix willed themselves back with a stronger emphasis on DEFENSE. Now given a chinaman’s chance to get their first-ever win over an erstwhile nemesis, Phoenix finally delivered.
The Fuel Masters have finally arrived. Watch the Phoenix take flight.