Meralco Bolts tied up their 2022 PBA Philippine Cup best-of-seven semifinal series with San Miguel Beermen with a convincing 111-97 victory on Wednesday.
This series hasn't seen a game go down to the wire, and Game 4 was no exception. The Bolts led from start to finish, taking a 36-23 lead after one quarter and holding off the Beermen's second-quarter comeback to seal the win and reduce the series to a best-of three, with Game 5 on Friday.
With the series promising to go the distance, here are three thoughts after Game 4.
Slow down June Mar, but stop the others
San Miguel center June Mar Fajardo was once again the focal point of Meralco's defense.
A host of Bolts bigs took turns trying to contain the six-time MVP, who still broke free for 21 points and 13 rebounds. Fajardo took only nine shots, but was 11-of-13 from the free throw line as the Meralco front line was oftentimes forced to simply foul him (overall Meralco was whistled for 40 fouls which led to 46 San Miguel free throws).
Aside from Fajardo, fellow starters CJ Perez (24 points) and Marcio Lassiter (23) were bright spots for SMB. But the Beermen got only 20 points from their bench as Jericho Cruz, Mo Tautuaa, Simon Enciso and Robbie Herndon combined for just three points on an atrocious 1-of-15 from the field.
Bolts center Raymond Almazan, who finished with 17 points on just eight shots, had his shot at trying to contain Fajardo and said it was a team effort.
"You know, that's hard to answer because it's really tough to guard June Mar," he answered in a mixture of English and Tagalog when asked how he approached his defensive assignment.
"Kyle (Pascual), me, Noy (Baclao). We all have to help each other because no one man can stop June Mar. So we all have to help each other and believe in the game plan of coach Norman (Black) for stopping June Mar."
"Well, actually, we don't really think we can stop June Mar," Black added. "He is the best player in the league. He's proven that over the years.
"What we would rather do is to just don't let him explode against us and to try to slow down the other guys like this. Marcio Lassiter got off to a great start tonight, CJ Perez got off to a great start tonight.
"We want to slow those guys down and make sure they're not very productive to go along with June Mar because it seems that June Mar is very consistent in the way he plays and he's very productive. So we don't think we can stop him. But we hope to be able to slow him down at the same time try to control the other players."
Bolts bigs deliver too
Almazan was the main man for Meralco's frontline rotation, but the other big men contributed in their own small way, both in defending Fajardo and doing other little things. Baclao had four points in ten minutes. Pascual chipped in a basket in 14 minutes. Even the ageless Reynel Hugnatan came off the bench to knock down a triple.
Black said it part of their game plan was to let their bigs take open shots, explaining: "We just tried to take advantage of some of the things that we saw from Game 3.
"We made some adjustments on how to attack their defense because their defense has been pretty good so far in the series, and it worked out for us. Offensively, we were able to get the ball to our bigs.
"Our bigs had a lot of confidence tonight, they took their shots and they made their shots, Raymond especially. And that's really the key.
"We saw in Game 3, that they actually were just leaving our bigs wide open, so the bigs aren't going to go anywhere, they're going to be out there in the court. So we just have to make sure that they have a lot of confidence and they take the shots when they come and make the shots when they come."
Almazan best typified this as he hit six of his eight attempts, adding: "Coach said 'Just have confidence in your shot because that's what San Miguel is giving us.'"
Newsome struggles, but others step up
If Fajardo was still able to get going for the Beermen, it was the exact opposite for the Bolts as leading scorer Chris Newsome finished with just eight points after taking just six shots. Luckily, Aaron Black (21 points), Allein Maliksi (19) and Cliff Hodge (18) filled the void.
"We shot the ball much better today," Black noted. "I think Aaron came out and was aggressive right from the start. And then other guys like Allein Maliksi also came out and shot the ball very, very well.
"We just have to get 'New' (Newsome) going. I don't think he really made a lot of points tonight and he is our leading scorer. So we have to study that and find out how they were able to slow him down and try to get him better shots at the basket."
Newsome did have six assists, and didn't sound too concerned about his lack of shots.
"Statistically, it wasn't my best night," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's about getting the win. We got the win today and a lot of people stepped up.
"I'm not that type of player that's looking to score a bunch of points. If someone else has got it going, especially with our team anybody can get hot on any given night, you gotta feed the hot hand.
"Maybe tonight wasn't my night, but it was definitely good for Allein. Aaron stepped up, Cliff stepped up, and Raymond, he stepped up as well.
"I've been playing for a while, and this isn't the first time that teams have keyed in on me. We've played (Barangay) Ginebra in different series, and their defense was guaranteed to take me out and make it as difficult as possible for me."