Remember how Meralco was supposed to have no answer to June Mar Fajardo and company? How they should have fallen prey to the SMB juggernaut?
Well, that was true for the first 12 minutes when SMB led by as much as 13. Fajardo was aggressive, they pushed the pace, and made the Bolts a jump-shooting team. They looked like they wanted to follow the recent trend of 30+ point quarters before they settled for a 28-16 edge. That changed all too quickly as the second quarter sparked (pun intended) the Meralco side. Suddenly they were the ones pushing the pace (thanks in no small part to SMB’s 11 turnovers in the first half), they relentlessly attacked the paint, and bombed away from deep to snatch a 50-49 advantage at the half. SMB never recovered. In fact, it looked as though they left their defense in the dugout as they were rendered helpless in the face of Meralco’s relentless assault. They pushed the lead to five by the end of the third, even with Fajardo’s continued brilliance and a three-point barrage from Marcio Lassiter and Ronald Tubid.
The Beermen kept it close in the final period as they traded baskets before Meralco managed to push the lead to nine, 99-90 at around the six-minute mark. SMB had one last run in them as they strung together nine straight points to tie it at 99-all. They couldn’t finish the job as Reynel Hugnatan, of all people, delivered a dagger of a three to retake a lead they would not relinquish. Once again, SMB relied too much on rushed perimeter shots in the dying minutes instead of playing through the Kraken down low.
So, how did SMB lose this one? It certainly wasn’t their offense. It had all to do with their non-existent defense and by extension, the horrific play of Arizona Reid.
As you can see, offense was far from an issue. They were able to generate really good looks even when Meralco slowed down the pace. They shot their normal percentage from deep, got good looks inside the arc, and had a ton of trips to the line (got there in 38.4% of their possessions as opposed to Meralco’s 16.9%). Fajardo’s solid play was a big part of that. It’s hard to complain about 30 points, nine boards, and just two turnovers in 40 minutes. He only missed two of his 11 shots and even outshot the whole Meralco squad at the charity stripe (12/15 FTs). His maturity and growth was on full display as he was aggressive but patient in attacking the interior. Not only was he unstoppable one-on-one, but he was masterful in handling double-teams, able to make the right pass almost every time. He wasn’t alone as Lassiter and Tubid combined for 32 points, including seven made three-pointers.
Again, SMB shot great percentages from everywhere on the court. Unfortunately, Meralco was that much better offensively. A big part of that was the lack of defense. After the first period, that suffocating SMB defense all but disappeared as they gave up more than 30 points in each, which is a big no-no for this team. From then on, Meralco just attacked the rim with impunity, with or without Fajardo on the floor. SMB was just way too slow in rotating over there. They had 21 more two-point attempts and a 52-40 edge in points in the paint led by Kelly Nabong’s career game and some clutch drives by Andre Emmett. That helped open up the perimeter for them where they were, surprisingly, lights out from deep, led by Jared Dillinger’s 4/4 performance.
This is where Reid comes in. He was just painful to watch defensively as he kept losing his man, letting guys by him, half-heartedly challenging shots, doubling when he didn’t have to, and overall making bad decisions on that end. At some points, Meralco was happy to run “whoever offense on Reid” (meaning they go to whoever Reid is defending). Now, it’s not fair to pine this all on him. Fajardo was also slow to challenge shots and the other guys were inconsistent with their defensive rotations and secondary help. Reid is not and will never be anywhere close to being a lockdown defender. But he usually does just enough not to be a liability there by staying in front of his man and securing defensive boards. That didn’t really materialize for him. His offense was poor as well. His shot was off the whole game as everything that wasn’t next to the basket was a miss and it didn’t help that he kept forcing in. Maybe it was just a really bad game but whatever the case, SMB needs Reid if they want to advance. His offense can come and go but his effort level on defense has to be there. I’m sure everyone knows how hard it is to defend four-on-five. The onus is definitely on him to redeem himself and lead the team to a victory.
- On a more positive note, Arwind Santos had a very quiet but effective game. If you only look at the box score, it’ll look like a regular bad game SMB has been accustomed to since the Commissioner’s Cup (five points, six rebounds, 28 minutes). More than the numbers, his effort level was great. He really went after the ball and kept possessions alive with his hustle. His defense on Emmett was especially noteworthy. As long as he kept Emmett from dribbling, he was able to use his length to challenge his shots on the perimeter or in the post. His effort was so good that his presence was certainly missed in the fourth quarter, especially with Reid’s struggles.
- One thing I’ve noticed over the past few games was the increase in SMB’s attempts from the corners. Before, a vast majority of their shots beyond the arc would come from the wings. Nowadays, Santos, Chris Lutz, and Alex Cabagnot have been spending more time there. In this game in particular, Lassiter was able to get a ton of open looks from there while Tubid, the master foul-baiter that he is, took advantage of Meralco’s hard closeouts to draw fouls. Again, not only is the corner pocket three the shortest, it’s also the hardest to defend. It’s a pretty good sign that SMB has recognized this.
- Probably one of the highlights of this game: Fajardo, all 6-foot 10-inches and 270 pounds of him, diving for a loose ball against three Bolts. Lassiter similarly joined the fray. That should serve as a bit of inspiration seeing your two best locals this conference laying their bodies on the line. Hopefully, it translates.
Unfortunately for SMB, they now find themselves with their backs to the wall as the pressure is on them as the higher seed. Despite the disappointing result, it isn’t the end of the world for them as a few things still went right for them. The gameplan shouldn’t change much: run the offense through Fajardo and let him make the right play. They just need to come out with their top-level defense, make sure Meralco doesn’t have another good shooting night, and play with a greater sense of urgency. Oh, and it would help if Reid could come out with a statement game and help remind everyone why they should #FearTheBeer
Featured Image Credit: Pranz Kaeno Billones, Sports5