CHICAGO - After scraping a 102-98 Game 4 victory over Magnolia to barely escape elimination, the Bolts are still plugged into the ongoing PBA Philippine Cup semifinals.
Although it felt like a relief from unbearable urges, Meralco head coach Norman Black understands that, still down 2-3 in the series and still facing the ax, his team needs to gulp for more air.
And because the grand slam-winning coach has been to this rodeo many times over, he knows that coming back from a 1-3 deficit isn't child's play.
"Magnolia is a very good team. Well-coached and talented," he told me in a telephone interview.
How good? I pressed.
"They're very aggressive," he confessed of a group of guys who have assumed a strong rough riders personality with the addition of Calvin Abueva. Black also credited Jackson Corpuz, Kyle Pascual and Rome Dela Rosa for their fine physical play.
Hearing coach Norman narrate all the perils his team must navigate made me feel like Meralco is on a mission that only Sylvester Stallone and The Expendables can accomplish.
Well, not really.
Beating heavily-favored Magnolia is doable. It's just going to be extremely "tough."
"We need to withstand their aggressiveness," Black emphasized while also pointing out the importance of mitigating Magnolia's ball pressure. More importantly, "we need to make shots."
Making shots wasn't hard to do for Meralco in Game 4, especially down the stretch where they forged ahead from a 90-90 tie with a game-ending 12-8 run.
Allein Maliksi went bonkers with 29 points on 7-of-8 shooting from 3.
Here's the thing, though, Maliksi hit 8-of-11 field goals while the rest of the Bolts went just 26-of-67.
I'M NOT A BRIGHT ANALYTICS GUY, BUT TELL YOU WHAT, 38 PERCENT SHOOTING WON'T WIN MANY GAMES. AND A 35.4 PERCENT CLIP FROM 3 (11 of 31) WON'T, EITHER.
Can a masked Maliksi, impaired by what is believed to be a fractured cheekbone, reprise his role as a savior for tomorrow's do-or-die duel?
That answer lies heavily on Maliksi's pain threshold given the brand of physicality Magnolia unleashes.
One thing great going for Meralco is the return of point guard Aaron Black, coach Norman's son.
He hadn't practiced with the team yet but he got some runs in and will be ready to go. Aaron would probably be leaking with some rust but the Bolts will be better with his high IQ and Rookie of the Year chops thrown into the mix.
Sensing that a potential double Black-eye is coming, Magnolia coach Chito Victolero told me "we included him (Aaron) in our preparation. We need to be ready and respect all their players."
Although the general consensus is that Magnolia will close it out tomorrow, the calming presence of Norman Black in the sidelines and his players' unyielding fighting spirit have definitely given Meralco a lot of newfound respect.
NOT FADING TO BLACK ANYTIME SOON. Coach Norman has been in the PBA for 40 years now. He is, to us Filipinos, as recognizable as the Rizal statue at Luneta Park.
And while he's not a martyr, we've gone through several stages of worship toward him over the years.
He's been a great player, an even greater coach, an ambassador of the PBA, and just a wonderful human being all around.
"I still enjoy the game. I still love what I do."
Stay as long you want, coach. And give those top four, wildly-budgeted teams some more hell along the way.
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