Japeth Aguilar has only played two games in the Season 46 PBA Governors' Cup Finals and his stat line hasn't exactly been stellar: 3 ppg on 2-of-8 shooting in around 12 minutes of playing time.
But make no mistake, his return from a calf injury has helped tilt the balance towards the Barangay Ginebra Kings, who now hold a 3-2 series lead over the Meralco Bolts.
Aguilar's availability for the finals had been in doubt after he suffered the injury nearly a month ago during Ginebra's semifinal series against NLEX. Up until he checked in during the first quarter of Game 4, his status for each game had taken on a "will he or won't he?" vibe during the postgame news conferences.
"We're looking at Sunday (April 10, Game 3)," Ginebra coach Tim Cone had said after his team had tied the series with a Game 2 win. Then on Sunday: "We're looking at Wednesday (April 13, Game 4). But I'm confident he might be able to make an appearance on Wednesday. Maybe Sunday, but if there's any likelihood, it would be Wednesday. He needs a few more days, it seems to me."
Aguilar didn't play in Game 3, an 83-74 Meralco win, but Bolts coach Norman Black knew it was just a matter of time.
"Well, I thought he was gonna play in Game 1," Black had said shortly after Game 3. "So I've been expecting him to show up every game. I knew once we lost Game 2, that he was gonna play in this series, because we have the Holy Week break. So I figured that would give him enough time to come back. ...When he's out there on the court, of course he gives them a big presence in the middle, very athletic presence."
Aguilar returned just before the league went into a three-day Holy Week break, going scoreless in more than 10 minutes of playing time in Game 4, a 95-84 win. Aguilar was obviously still struggling with his rhythm, but his presence presented Black with a new challenge.
Prior to the series, the Meralco coach had talked about how it was important to get wingman Allein Maliksi going on offense, and how sometimes that was difficult to do if the opposing team trotted out a tall frontline. Aguilar's return has given Ginebra just that.
"The return of Japeth Aguilar has made a big difference," Black said on Monday, a day after the Bolts dropped Game 5. "It's allowed them to go big with Justin (Brownlee) sliding down to the 3 spot."
With Brownlee and Christian Standhardinger both logging over 40 minutes per game since Aguilar returned, Ginebra has had at least one player standing over 6-foot-5 on the court at almost all times. It's forced Black to dig into his bench and give minutes to forward Mac Belo, who was hardly used in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
What's dangerous for Meralco is that Aguilar is gradually getting his legs back, as evidenced by the alley-oop lob he caught from Scottie Thompson in the second quarter that he slammed home. He also impacted the game more on defense in Game 5, logging two steals and a block in 15 minutes of run time.
Cone admitted, though, that they'll still keep a minutes restriction on the 6-10 forward.
"He's been a little careful, and I don't blame him, and we're encouraging him to be careful. And we're trying to keep his minutes down and limit him. We don't wanna stretch him out and fatigue that muscle too much and then let it stretch again or tear. So the coaching staff is doing a really good job of monitoring his minutes, and letting me know how many minutes he's out there, and we've got a kind of a mental cap on how many minutes we play him."
This should be welcome news for Black, who needs Maliksi to produce points at the small forward spot if the Bolts are to have a chance of battling back and winning the franchise's first PBA title.
"They still play Arvin Tolentino, Jeff Chan and sometimes Nard Pinto at the 3 spot," Black noted. "We should still be able to get Allein more playing time."
The Meralco coach is also hoping to get more out of guard Chris Banchero, who has been battling injuries that have limited his playing time.
"It's been difficult," Black said. "A couple of injuries have slowed him down."
Black declined to be more specific about the nature of Banchero's injuries, except to say they were different from the back spasms he suffered in their semifinal series against Magnolia. He added that Banchero told him at Monday's team practice that he "was close" to full strength and should be able to contribute more in Game 6 on Wednesday.
This is welcome news for the Bolts, who need all the help they can get to avoid a repeat of the 2016 Finals, where they took a 2-1 series only to drop the last three games.
Black, though, isn't one to dwell on the past. His full focus is on Wednesday, and, if they survive that, Friday.
"It's difficult to play Ginebra. They're very well-coached, and they have the fans on their side. I rarely live in the past. If I did, I'd still be living in 1989."