PBA: The Rise of the Phoenix
Paul Lintag on Apr 20, 2019 09:22 AM
Phoenix’s rise as a true PBA contender has been a long time coming.
Phoenix’s first breakout performance was complete.
The Fuel Masters beat Blackwater to close the elimination round of the 2018 PBA Governors’ Cup and at 8-3, Phoenix clinched the no. 2 seed in the playoffs just behind two-time defending champion Brgy. Ginebra.
It's the highest regular-season finish for the team in franchise history. As the no. 2 seed, Phoenix also got a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals, another first for them.
“We always believe it and now, I’m glad we can finally show everybody that we are a contender,” top guard Matthew Wright said at the time.
Still, while the Fuel Masters just completed a breakout campaign, they knew the playoffs were a different field.
Even as the no. 2 seed with a playoff bonus, Phoenix exercised caution.
“It's nice to finish in second because you get the twice-to-beat, but that doesn't mean anything,” Wright said.
Wright was right on the money. Phoenix’s high seeding didn’t mean anything as they ran into a red-hot Meralco team. The Fuel Masters didn’t win again for the rest of the season.
The no. 7 Bolts won two straight, including an overtime finish in the do-or-die game.
Phoenix’s breakout campaign went up in smoke. The Fuel Masters’ playoff record stood at 0-6.
Not quite the look of a contender.
ENTER THE BEAST
It’s important to put into context Phoenix’s breakout campaign first.
At their best, the Fuel Masters were a middle of the road team. They were in basketball purgatory pretty much, not quite good to be an actual contender and not quite bad to earn a top pick.
However, as last season progressed, Phoenix was on its way to earning a high pick.
Following a string of playoff appearances, the Fuel Masters were in a drought, despite the fact that they just installed a new coaching staff led by head coach Louie Alas and top assistant Topex Robinson.
After the Philippine Cup and the Commissioner’s Cup, Phoenix only had a combined nine wins, underperforming in both conferences.
The Fuel Masters needed help. Enter the Beast.
Calvin Abueva has gone AWOL once again and the Alaska Aces ended up suspending him for the Commissioner’s Cup.
Before the PBA moved on for the season-ending Governors’ Cup, Alaska dealt its star forward to Phoenix for pretty much nothing. To acquire the services of the Beast, the Fuel Masters unloaded a 2019 first-round pick and the seldom-used Karl Dehesa.
Oh yes, Phoenix gave up pretty much nothing to land a star, albeit problematic, forward.
It was worth the gamble.
“I think Calvin is a big help,” said Phoenix resident import Eugene Phelps. “He brings energey, that’s what we’re lacking.”
“Calvin brings intensity, he crashes the boards, he's relentless. He adderesses our immediate weakness which is an extra scorer," Wright said then about his new teammate.
"There's toughness about him, he makes us serious contenders," he added.
Abueva’s arrival coincided with Phoenix’s first real breakout performance, but there’s more to do if the Fuel Masters are to become “serious contenders” in the PBA.
A no. 2 seed and a franchise-best 8-3 record was not enough to earn the team its first playoff win after all.
NO MORE PROJECTS
Despite landing a new star forward in Calvin Abueva, Phoenix still somehow had two picks in the first round of the 2018 PBA Draft, with one being a top-4 selection.
The Fuel Masters have done well in previous drafts, taking Matthew Wright in the Gilas draft of 2016 and Jason Perkins in 2017.
Wright was second in his Rookie of the Year race and Perkins was the ROY of his batch, regardless of circumstance.
Phoenix had a set foundation and the team didn’t feel the need to add another project. The Fuel Masters sent the fourth pick to NLEX before the draft for Alex Mallari and Dave Marcelo.
It was a deliberate move for Phoenix as they looked to solve the immediate problems from the previous season’s playoff collapse.
Mallari was a Grand Slam champion from San Miguel after all and Marcelo is not a project big man. Big Dave will be ready to grind it out immediately.
“Lagi kong sinasabi sa coaches ko, mentally retarded yata tayo, hindi tayo mag-mature,” head coach Louie Alas said.
“But kidding aside, tingin ko with the addition of Alex and Dave, makaka-tulong sila ng malaki. Hopefully, yung two stops na kulang namin [last conference], mapunan na namin,” he added.
Mallari, who’s had his fair share of teams in the PBA, knew the exact reason why he was brought in to Phoenix.
But the prospect of helping a team get over the hump was a formidable challenge. It was also a great opportunity.
“We got a lot of versatile guys that we could put in different positions. We got a lot of advantage there and hopefully we can exploit that. I’m just excited to get them to the Finals for the first time in franchise history,” Mallari said.
The only problem was at the time of his arrival, Phoenix had zero playoff wins and the semis was a totally foreign concept for the team.
“Oh sh*t. Shoot, shoot,” Mallari said when he found out.
“They made a lot of noise last year and couldn’t get over the hump with Meralco. They were right there and ready to make the next step. I’m just happy to be here and try to help them any way I can. I hold myself accountable in that area so hopefully I can live up to my expectations,” he added.
LIVING UP TO EXPECTATIONS
Phoenix’s first game of the new PBA season was against Meralco, because of course it was.
This first game of the season against Bolts mirrored Phoenix’s loss that eliminated them from last season, making it the perfect early test for the team.
The Fuel Masters had a big lead and lost all of it. The game was then decided in overtime. However, unlike the previous loss, Phoenix would come through this time with Calvin Abueva sinking the game winner.
It was the first sign of maturity for the Fuel Masters.
“I have to give credit sa resiliency ng mga players ko. We just have to finish it, kahit ilang overtime mangyari,” said head coach Louie Alas.
In their following game against TNT, Phoenix needed another overtime period before taking a second win. The Fuel Masters are now winning the close games they all lost previously.
Two straight wins became three and then four. All of a sudden, Phoenix was off to its best start in franchise history with a clean 5-0 record.
“Honestly it’s a great feeling, it’s one thing getting drafted by a great team and then just being a part of history,” Wright said.
“It’s another thing to start from the bottom and see it develop and start something brand new. I take a lot of pride in that,” he added.
The streak stopped with an overtime loss to then no. 2 Rain or Shine but the message has been sent.
At 5-1, Phoenix has lived up to expectations, at least so far.
For the team to prove they’re a true contender, the big test is yet to come.
“We haven’t done anything yet, we haven’t done anything worth bragging. We haven’t won a playoff game yet, we’re still hungry and motivated. I feel like we’re gonna be something special, we just gotta keep [going] at it,” Wright said.
Phoenix was 7-1 and was the second team to clinch a playoff spot in the 2019 PBA Philippine Cup.
Still, the Fuel Masters were far from a a sure thing. The team’s schedule somehow set them up for a wild finish and a worst-case scenario that would drop them to as low as 5th.
To finish off the elimination round, Phoenix had to face all three San Miguel teams in succession. All three San Miguel teams entered the new season as defending champions, having won one title each in 2018.
Phoenix was ready however, the team was looking forward to the San Miguel gauntlet all conference long. Part of them piling up seven wins was in preparation for this wild regular season finish.
“Syempre mga top teams yun,” Calvin Abueva said of the three San Miguel teams.
“Yun yung point na kailangan namin manalo dito sa mga naunang games namin kasi pagdating dun, baka ano pa mangyari,” he added.
Phoenix cleared Magnolia for its first game of the SMC gauntlet.
The Fuel Masters used to lose by 40 to the Hotshots just a couple of seasons back, so the team beating the most recent PBA champions by outplaying them in the clutch was another clear indication that Phoenix is on the rise.
“The Phoenix of years prior, we would have lost that game by 30,” Wright said as they erased a 17-point deficit to beat Magnolia in the clutch.
“But we kept fighting. I’m really happy, I think we’re for real,” he added.
Phoenix lost the second game of the SMC gauntlet to Ginebra thanks to a last-second block by Japeth Aguilar on Calvin Abueva.
But the Fuel Masters recovered and beat four-time Philippine Cup champion San Miguel Beer in another close game to finish the elimination round with a win.
Less than six months after the team’s first breakout campaign, Phoenix actually took one step forward, finishing with a 9-2 record to earn the no. 1 in the All-Filipino.
Now all the Fuel Masters need to do is to confront their playoff demons.
RISE OF THE PHOENIX
Storylines matter in everything and as Phoenix tried to go for a couple of franchise firsts in the 2019 PBA Philippine Cup quarterfinals, the basketball gods decided to give the team a perfect opponent.
The Alaska Aces were Phoenix’s first-round matchup. Yes, the same Alaska team that the Fuel Masters treat as family.
In more ways than one, the Fuel Masters finding success — with the Aces’ former star forward no less — is proof that the Alaska system still works in the PBA amidst the dynastic rule of the San Miguel group.
If Phoenix is to win its first playoff game after seven tries and make its first-ever trip to the PBA semifinals, the team will have to go through Alaska, pretty much their sister team.
It couldn’t have been more perfect.
“It feels good to get the monkey off our back. We haven’t got a playoff win ever, it’s our first franchise postseason win. I’m happy to be part of history even if it’s just small,” Wright said after Phoenix scored a convincing win in the quarterfinals against Alaska.
Drafted by Phoenix in 2016 and extended by the franchise prior to this season, Matthew Wright has been the most vocal of the group when it comes to saying that they’re for real.
After the Fuel Masters stamped their class as a true threat in the All-Filipino, he’s been finally proven right.
Well, he’s been a believer of this team since Day One after all, this is not new to him.
“I’m glad it actually came into fruition or else I would’ve been stupid,” he said.
“I wasn’t lying [saying we’re for real]. We’re a legit team now,” Wright added.
Phoenix’s rise as a true PBA contender has been a long time coming.
The team did its homework in the draft and got key young pieces in Matthew Wright and Jason Perkins.
When there was a chance to nab a star in Calvin Abueva, the team pounced on the opportunity.
Understanding that they’re still missing that extra oomph to be able to win now, the Fuel Masters used a surplus in assets to take two tested veterans in Alex Mallari and Dave Marcelo.
Perhaps most importantly, the franchise trusted a pair of champion coaches in Louie Alas and Topex Robinson to run the show, even when the initial results didn’t look promising at all.
These moves look brilliant now but at the time, all of them were gambles.
“We gave up our first pick for Mallari and Dave Marcelo. Kasi yung kinukuha naman namin dun si Bolick, I know hindi namin siya makukuha so good move na rin samin. Nagpapa-salamat din ako na nakuha namin si Alex,” Alas said.
“Sabi ko nga nung nag-sign up ako dito, I’m three pieces away. Nakuha ko lahat, sakto. Hindi ko pinapangako na magcha-champion tayo pero we will be competitive,” he added.
Phoenix is officially on the rise. How high the Fuel Masters will go, we’ll just have to wait on see.
[Note: Phoenix is locked in a best-of-7 series in the 2019 PBA Philippine Cup semifinals against four-time defending champion San Miguel Beer. At the time of publishing, the top-ranked Fuel Masters trail the series, 0-2, with Game 3 set for Easter Sunday]
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