As losses piled up to start the 2022-23 PBA Commissioner's Cup and rumors of a franchise sale persisted off the court, Phoenix Super LPG slowly resembled a team that was about to roll over -- one that would struggle to stay afloat as the departure of Matthew Wright and a season-ending injury to Jason Perkins sapped the team of bonafide star power and hope for the immediate future.
Talent and good coaching, however, always find ways to manifest themselves.
Such has been the case over the past three games for Phoenix, which rattled off wins over NLEX Road Warriors, Barangay Ginebra and Meralco Bolts to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot halfway through the campaign -- a prospect that seemed a little far-fetched early in the tournament.
While there's no guarantee Phoenix can sustain this winning stretch, it will only get harder to project their trajectory if they follow up these impressive victories with more shades of brilliance and grit.
Usually a team that thrives offensively to compensate for a shoddy defense, coach Topex Robinson's wards are doing the exact opposite this conference, ranking second in defensive efficiency (99.1 defensive rating, second-best per RealGM) while being one of only two teams to score under a hundred points per 100 possessions.
Phoenix's offense has been better as of late and has actually generated a lot of good shots all tournament long -- the team is 7th in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) for the conference -- but the firepower is capped by the sheer amount of turnovers (19.2, league-high) it commits, an old issue exacerbated by the loss of Wright and another playmaker in Aljun Melecio, who was traded away before the conference in exchange for more depth.
Enter Tyler Tio.
Already a capable ball-handler with a deft touch from deep before entering the pro ranks, Tio has slotted himself into the previously-vacant role of a lead guard who can create his own shot and facilitate with care in the backcourt for Phoenix.
Through six games, he's averaged 16.2 points and 4.7 assists while posting a 62.7% true shooting (TS%) -- a team-high mark among rotation figures.
"With Matt (Wright) gone and with 'Perk' (Perkins) injured, I knew there was going to be a bigger load of playmaking, leadership, and minutes played available," Tio told ESPN. "And I guess that Aljun trade cemented it."
Phoenix still spreads its touches around -- no player that has averaged at least 15 minutes has logged a usage rate of over 23% -- but the results have been great when Tio has taken charge, as his composure against aggressive ball screen coverages and penchant for burning teams for playing more conservative schemes have shined as a primary ball-handler.
Tio says it greatly helps that coach Jon Jacinto -- an assistant under Tab Baldwin at Ateneo also walks the Phoenix sidelines and helps run the offense, which means he gets to apply all of the reads that he learned during his time with the Blue Eagles.
"All the ball screen reads are exactly the same. I know exactly where my teammates are going to be," he added.
The main difference lies in freedom.
Under Robinson, Tio and the rest of the Fuel Masters get to freelance more and call their own number -- a key factor in the 24-year-old guard's slightly unexpected ascent into a larger role.
"I think there's a little bit more freedom in coach Topex's system," Tio explained. "It's called our 'Rule No. 1', where whatever happens, a player can trust his best judgment and coaches can't question that. Whereas with coach Tab's system, it's more structured and he wants the ball in certain areas for certain plays.
A large part of why the passing has been proficient is because teams often sell out on his lethal jumper.
Only 13 players have attempted over seven 3s a game, and only one player has shot better than his 41.9% mark from deep. His pullup jumper (14-of-27, or 51.8%, per InStat) has been money, too, as he's been letting it fly with zero hesitation off the pick and roll, while curling off screens, via handoffs, and even in transition.
That level of perimeter shot-making has been a great complement to how another in-rhythm Fuel Master in Javee Mocon has been approaching his own offense.
While Tio has been killing it with his shooting and passing, Mocon has been more deliberate in getting easy buckets around the paint by feasting in transition and taking advantage of size mismatches down low.
Built like a mini-tank at 6-foot-3, smaller defenders bounce off of Mocon while bigger defenders prove to be a tad too slow once he attacks with requisite space around him.
This conference, the former San Beda star has been shooting an impressive 69.4% around the rim and a staggering 1.92 points per possession (PPP) in transition, per InStat - up from 37.2% and just 0.57 PPP from last conference.
"Miina-maximize nila 'yung style ko, which is I play inside. Iba pa 'yung sa transition. Medyo big guard din naman ako kahit papaano, so when a small guard switches on me, very intentional 'yung sets namin, 'yung plays namin na pumunta sa'min 'yung bola talaga," Mocon told ESPN.
"Last conference kasi I felt like wala ako masyadong na-contribute," Mocon said. "I think I'm just really locked in this conference, kasi 'yung pinakita ko last conference, malayo sa pinakita ko sa Rain or Shine (Elasto Painters). When Phoenix traded for me, ang dami nilang binigay, 'di ba? So I'm just giving back sa management kung ano talaga kinuha nila."
Where Mocon has truly shined, though, is on defense.
A stout defender from the moment he entered the PBA, Mocon rarely concedes advantages and plugs holes that were previously present. A team that presses as much as Phoenix would normally have exploitable gaps, but Mocon's reliability as a disciplined team defender helps minimize the damage.
"Siguro naging part din ako doon [sa improvement] kasi I'm very vocal din sa defense. Sometimes pupunta ako sa coaches, mag-uusap kami about a nice offensive possession, tapos sasabihin ko, 'Coach, kaso walang depensa eh.' Tapos sasabihin nila, 'Oo nga 'no?' May focus na on the little details."
Mocon's relative versatility has also boded well for Phoenix's defense, a pressing outfit masterminded by assistant coach Jamike Jarin that also frequently toggles through different defensive schemes -- often on consecutive possessions -- in the halfcourt to throw off opposing offenses.
So far it has worked. Phoenix has allowed the fewest opportunities in the pick and roll and has conceded the least paint touches, per InStat, with Mocon playing no small part in their success in that regard.
"We delay the game, but at the same time we're making it faster for them para hindi sila maka-setup. Hindi naman kami matatangkad talaga eh, kaya naisip ng mga coaches na 'yung speed and energy namin and activity namin, i-capitalize namin," Mocon noted.
Possessing a lot of momentum with seven games left on their schedule, the opportunity is pretty ripe for the Fuel Masters to tally more wins and take a playoff spot.
There's a lot of work that needs to be done -- Tio says he has to continue working on his "game management" as lead guard, while Mocon wants to cut down the team's "careless" turnovers -- but the key here is to not look too far ahead and take it one step at a time.
"If you're asking me, I always want to be alongside those playoff teams. But we're going to take it one game at a time. Mahirap kasi isipin lahat ng games. Mababaliw ka eh," said Mocon.
"It's all about the preparation for the very next game," Tio remarked. "We have a process in terms of our preparation and I think we just need to stick with that, make sure that we don't drop off. The results come from the preparation."