WHETHER Air21 is for real or not is set to be known on Tuesday when it faces a similarly in-form Barangay Ginebra side in the PBA Governors’ Cup at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
Hardly getting a second look in the past, the Express have been drawing attention since their impressive breakthrough semifinal run in the Commissioners’ Cup where they went a win away from reaching the championship round.
The giant-killers have since rode the momentum, winning their first two games to emerge as an early leader in the season-ending tournament going into the top-of-the-table clash between two teams which were the last two seeds in the Commissioner's Cup playoffs.
But the Express face a stern test in the Gin Kings, whose transition to the triangle offense under new coach Jeff Cariaso has so far seemed seamless, having also won their first two assignments to share the top spot.
Air21 center Asi Taulava, however, believes the Kings are far from mastering the proven offensive system like grand slam-seeking San Mig Super Coffee has.
“They are a work in progress and hopefully we can take advantage of that,” the ageless slotman said ahead of their 8 p.m. matchup that will break their tie and deal one team’s first defeat.
“But you should remember that the players that they have right now, they have very high basketball IQ so they can easily adjust,” Express coach Franz Pumaren was quick to add, referring to the star-studded squad led by guards Mark Caguioa and LA Tenorio, twin towers Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar, and import Zach Mason.
Bannered by import Dominique Sutton, Joseph Yeo, Mac Cardona, and Taulava, the Express remain undaunted, but are careful not to get overconfident.
“Our confidence is on a high level, but at the same time, we try not to be cocky and we try to respect our opponents,” Taulava said.
“But we want to be confident enough that we know we’re going to go out there and outwork the other team,” added the 41-year-old MVP candidate, who is set to go to battle against Ginebra's 'Twin Towers' of Slaughter and Aguilar.
So in-sync are the Express that they outclassed Barako Bull, 101-86, last Saturday behind a back-breaking 20-2 binge in the fourth quarter in a game where they committed a franchise-low eight turnovers.