MERALCO’S PATH TO THE FINALS

As has been the case the past few seasons, Meralco had a relatively easy time going through eliminations. They were able to leverage a hot start into a twice-to-beat advantage. They only needed one game to knock off Alaska and force a semifinal clash with sister team, and conference long favorites, TNT KaTropa. They were down 2-1 thanks to a costly error involving a pass to Hodge on the bench, but thanks to the efforts of Allen Durham and rookie Bong Quinto, they fought back with two straight wins to force another showdown with longtime finals tormentors, Barangay Ginebra San Miguel.

KEY RETURNEES

As always, Meralco will lean heavily on Durham, Chris Newsome and Baser Amer, three guys that have been in their bouts against Ginebra before and are no strangers to the heartbreaks.

Durham is still extremely reliable. The addition of Almazan seemingly unlocked his full repertoire since he isn’t bogged down playing and defending at the five spot. His playmaking and ability to attack from the perimeter have been noteworthy while still being a hulking presence in the paint and on the boards. Ginebra will be hard pressed to contain someone of his size and speed. The Bolts could have easily gotten another import after coming up short multiple times but didn’t. Durham has certainly repaid that trust and will hope to finally lead them to a championship.

As for Newsome and Amer, they’re a bit interchangeable with how they play. Both are able to drive, to shoot from outside and set up the offense. Newsome has always been reliable ever since college while Amer has quietly grown into his role. Their defense will probably be the most important part of their games. We can expect Newsome to have the tough task of being the primary defender of Stanley Pringle and maybe even Justin Brownlee with how he can defend 1-3. Amer on the other hand will need to do his best in disrupting LA Tenorio’s playmaking.

Again, all three have been there before but there is definitely a sense that they’re at their best right now and ready to break through and lead their team.

KEY CHANGES

Quinto made a huge impression in the semis. Back in the 2018 draft, he was considered a steal with how he fell into the second round. It looks like he’s finally living up to the hype around him with his play this conference as he regularly started games and eventually averaged double digits against TNT, including a huge 20-point outburst in the final game. With the Bolts missing the type of play and energy Jared Dillinger used to bring, Quinto is filling in the void just fine. Expect Quinto to be the X-factor for them in the series.

A huge hole in the middle has always plagued Meralco especially against a team with Ginebra’s size. Having to make do with Allen Durham, Reynel Hugnatan and other natural fours just never ended well for them. That will likely not be as big as an issue with Raymund Almazan now in the fold. He’s been fantastic for the Bolts so far, able to anchor the paint and allow Durham to play more outside. It’s also a bonus that he can reliably shoot from the outside to pull Ginebra’s bigs out of the paint. He may still lack the size against Japeth Aguilar, Greg Slaughter and even Joe DeVance, but his presence will certainly make a difference for his team.

One other issue Meralco had in their previous meetings was that they couldn’t just pluck someone off the bench to give them a lift them when their offense stalls. Allein Maliksi alleviates this problem with his ability to score in bursts. Back when he was with the Blackwater Elite, his streakiness was problematic with them wanting him to be THE guy. But on a team like Meralco, he can just go out there and shoot his shot without worrying about carrying the team.

KEY FACTOR FOR MERALCO TO WIN THE SERIES

Defense will be the key for Meralco. Weirdly enough, their stats don’t really jump out despite finishing at the top of the standings. They’re middle of the pack in literally every statistical category. But what’s not middle of the pack is some of Ginebra’s offensive numbers. They’re tops in three-point shooting and assists while being one of the worst at getting to the line. Those are the three areas that the Bolts will have to focus on in this series. Luckily, they have the athleticism and length to be disruptive. That’s why it will be crucial for their defense to contain both Pringle and Tenorio. They don’t have to be completely shut down but just bothered enough to stall the flow of their offense. Ginebra is tough to stop once they get into a rhythm of sharing the ball and finding the open man for easy points.

Stopping Brownlee is another matter altogether despite his age and mileage. He’s still too good to contain. But him going off and having to do everything offensively has almost always bode well for the opposing squad. As they say, make him work and tire him out.

Lastly, Meralco will need consistency from everyone. As expected, they usually rely on Durham for a lot of things, even with the new (and effective) additions. Win or lose, he’ll give them production and numbers. It’s up to everyone else to keep up. They probably can’t afford many off nights especially from Newsome, Amer and Maliksi scoring-wise.

With Meralco and Ginebra set to clash in the finals for the third time in four years, will third time be the charm for the Bolts? It remains to be seen but with their elevated play this conference, this is probably as good a time as any to actually win a series and make this a true Governor’s Cup rivalry.