NOT SO FAST: Rising NLEX in for a test

It seems the load on Coach Yeng Guiao’s back is getting lighter as the days go by.  His NLEX squad has finally risen from the dead, and the team is getting infused with positivity after a very explosive start to the conference.

After its thrilling 95-91 win over Phoenix, NLEX is the surprise leader in the early phase of the Governors’ Cup with four wins in as many games.  Winning four games alone is already an achievement, since it ties the total number of wins the Road Warriors earned in the last two conferences combined.

The resurgence of Guiao and his men is largely attributed to the players finally grasping the coach’s everybody-needs-to-work mantra, and partly to the performance of key players like Kevin Louie Alas, Carlo Lastimosa and Allex Mallari.

Guiao’s philosophy of not heavily relying on star power has its limitations, but it is a battle-proven ideology that has netted him seven PBA titles and two PBA coach of the year awards. With his use of a thousand starting lineups and his love for the drive-and-dish offense, it was just a matter of time till Guiao found the mix of players who can translate his strategies into wins. It took him two humiliating conferences and more than a handful of juvenile memes, but if this start indicates a turning of the page for the Road Warriors, we would see another perennial contender under Guiao much like he did with Swift, Red Bull, and Rain or Shine.

NLEX’s burst to the top has been keyed by four players: the three mentioned above and the import Aaron Fuller. The 27-year-old USC product has shown he knows how to use his size and strength, and on the two games I’ve watched him play, he rarely forces the issue and just takes what the defense gives him. Now that’s a lot of clichés, but that does not mean they’re not true.

According to PBA.PH, Fuller averages 26.3 points per game using a bevy of layups, hooks, and jumpers over people too short to bother him. And he throws his weight around to get 20.8 rebounds per game. He played his worst game against Phoenix and shot just 8-of-18 from the floor, but he finished with 18 points and grabbed 24 caroms. At 6’6’’ with enough skill to shoot from 15 feet away, Fuller is mostly tasked to keep the opponents’ interior defense rattled with the threat of his mid-range attack and his deft at the post, but he also sometimes acts as the fulcrum for the swing passes necessary in Guiao’s system.  He is big, he is smart, and has some range. If Fuller was a little shorter, a little bit stockier, and a little rougher with his bumps and screens, I’d think he is Beau Belga in disguise.     

On the locals’ side, most of the credits fall on the well-deserving shoulders of Alas, Lastimosa and Mallari. Alas, whether he is inspired by love or by something closer to basketball, is showing the array of skills he flaunted while wearing a Letran Knight uniform, skills he kind of lost after being expected to back up Jason Castro in Talk N’ Text.

But he is enjoying a vengeful beginning to this competition, as the second-generation pro player is eighth in the league in scoring with 17.5 points per game, just below a handful of imports and one local player in Globalport’s Terrence Romeo. Alas still prefers to make his points from inside the arc using his quirky footwork and flamboyant flicks with his hands, but with only eight three-point attempts in the first four games, he’ll need to add some range into his arsenal or defenses will quickly catch up with his tricks. Maybe it’s Al-Dag, maybe it’s because he isn’t pressured to be the heir to All-Asia caliber Castro, or maybe he is just seeing the game better now. Call it whatever you want, but NLEX needs more of this Ace-level performance from Alas if they are to stretch this run.

Mallari’s PBA career has been a whirlwind of teams that gave up on his very good, but inadequate skills. As a 6’4’’ guard, the 30-year-old Fil-Am has the height of a modern point guard (think Stephen Curry and John Wall) but has the shooting skills of a center (think Ricky Rubio, and Dwight Howard LOL!). He intrigued the San Miguel Beermen into picking him third overall in 2012, but was moved to the Purefoods franchise a season after his rookie season because he shot 37% from the field and 26.5% from deep (which is still his career high) in his freshman year. He became a central piece to Coach Tim Cone’s Grand Slam-winning dynasty in Purefoods, playing as the stabilizer guard off-the-bench, but he struggled for consistency when asked to do heavy lifting.  Mallari was traded to Mahindra, but was told by coach Chris Gavina he was trying to do too much by himself and the relationship between the two soured so he was dealt to NLEX.

Under Guiao, the Mallari is still shooting poorly, but has formed a lethal combo with Lastimosa, a talented scorer playing for his third team in his four seasons. Humble Bola stats show that the 26-year-old once scored 17.5 ppg (on a very impressive 43% shooting clip) in the 33 games he played for lowly Blackwater in the 2015-2016 season, but he still did not warrant interest from the top teams. According to rumors, he had problems sharing the ball and most coaches from big clubs don’t think he can be a system player. Well, that was not a problem for Guiao (see Belga, Quinahan, and most of his former players).  Lastimosa halved his scoring from his Blackwater days but improved his efficiency and now has a chance to build something special with Guiao, who rarely gives up early on his projects.

 

Based on this blistering start, it all worked well for the Road Warriors. Guiao needed players who can carry loads but also can be bent to his system of sharing – Alas, Lastimosa and Mallari showed up. Carlo is averaging 9.75 ppg, with 2 apg, while shooting 60% from the field. Alex puts up a nightly norm of 9 ppg, 3.75 rpg and 2.75 apg as a point guard in Coach Guiao’s hectic combination of players. That combo scores around 18 points and almost 5 assists a night, and add to that the 18 points that Alas puts up, and you have a making of a Big 3 that is some playoff games away from becoming big fish in the PBA.

If there is any drawbacks to this wondrous start, it is that NLEX might see a drop in its chance to pick first overall in this year’s draft, which is rumored to feature two no-brainers in Kiefer Ravena and Christian Standhardinger. Ravena is a combo guard who shone in the Jones Cup, scoring 10 points per game with 2.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists to boot, while Standhardinger, another Gilas standout, is a mobile, 6-foot-7(or 8 or 9, depending on where you stand) center-forward that will help Guiao challenge SMB’s June Mar Fajardo and Ginebra’s Greg Slaughter.

 

With two bottom-place finishes in the last two conferences, NLEX is almost a lock to pick first this year, but there are two teams who have a realistic chance to steal the “top” post. Kia finished 10th in each of the last two conferences and is on pace to finish this one with a goose egg (0 wins), while also winless Blackwater ended the All-Filipino Cup ninth, and the Commissioner’s Cup 11th.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Even Guiao don’t want to proclaim that NLEX are contenders to lift the Governors’ Cup trophy. “Tingnan natin kung yun nga, totoo ba ito o nagpapanggap lang ba kami talaga,” said Guiao after their win against Phoenix. “Tingnan natin sa next game.”

 

The Road Warriors are in for a bumpy ride since they will face three contenders in their next four outings.

 

August 5 NLEX vs Ginebra (defending champion)

August 13 NLEX vs Meralco (runner-up)

August 18 NLEX vs Blackwater

August 27 NLEX vs San Miguel (duh?)

Ginebra (2-1) is also in for an acid test, since NLEX will be the first solid team the Kings will face since rediscovering the effects of the Triangle Offense on its very tall roster. The Kings thrashed both Globalport and Kia in their last two games to rebound from their loss to Meralco, so both NLEX and Ginebra will get to see if they are really contenders or not in this out-of-town match.

Meralco, too, will be a nice gauge on what NLEX is capable of. The Bolts are 3-0, and are heavily favored to extend that winning run when they face winless Kia this Sunday. How Alas and company fare against Meralco’s stifling defense will show if NLEX is ready to make the leap.

Blackwater is a nice breather for NLEX before they face the San Miguel Beermen Dragons, who are fresh from beating Talk N’ Text (who itself is a juggernaut!), 97-91, despite playing really below their standard. Against the Tropa, SMB shot just 41%, made only six of their 26 treys (23%, yuck), sank only 19 of their 28 attempts from the free throw line, gave up 66 points in the paint, and allowed 26 second chance points. But SMB still walked away with the frigging win. These Beermen are not on-pace to win the Grand Slam for nothing.

So, yes, NLEX look really impressive, but don’t get your hopes up yet. Because it is only by the end of August will we know whether these Road Warriors are suited for a playoff run or cruising on an expressway to get coveted number one pick.

– Roland Quilente

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