Thursday, February 26, 2015

Expansion teams KIA and Blackwater are growing up quickly

By  | Judgment Call – 4 hours ago

When PBA expansion teams Blackwater Elite and KIA Sorento joined the league to start its 40th season, pretty much everyone said that both teams would struggle to get wins, considering their shallow lineups and lack of experience. True enough, in their maiden conference, the Philippine Cup, Blackwater did not win a game, while KIA only won its matchup against Blackwater, which actually surprised many who thought Blackwater had the better lineup. Because of their dismal Philippine Cup performances, no one expected anything different from the two teams in the ongoing Commissioner’s Cup.

For Blackwater, the second conference has been a struggle, to put it mildly. Its original import, Chris Charles, got injured before their first game, so they had to play without one and lost. Then, they recruited naturalized Filipino Marcus Douthit who has not shot the ball well (34.5%) in six games. Some local players have played well in spurts, like outside-sniping big man Bryan Faundo and powerful guard Brian Heruela, but it seems they all cannot produce at the same time, particularly in the endgame.

There is, however, a silver lining. Winless in the Philippine Cup, the Elite secured their first-ever franchise victory against Philippine Cup champion San Miguel Beer in a game where everything seemed to fall into place for Coach Leo Isaac and his players, as the Beermen flubbed plays in crunchtime that they would normally execute, and the Elite got enough production from several players, including crucial shots from Bam Gamalinda and Gilbert Bulawan, to snatch the W.

Having watched all the games of Blackwater so far, six out of seven being losses, we tend to agree with Douthit when he said that, aside from how badly he considers himself to be playing (on live streaming after the win over SMB, he said, “I’m playing like crap!”), what his teammates lack is confidence. This is understandable since most of them are discards from other teams, free-agent pickups whom no one else wanted, or perennial bench players who have hardly played in the past.

But in truth, they have showed their grit and determination and, yes, confidence at times, in a few of their games. They hung tough with usual contender Talk ‘N Text, even leading in the fourth quarter, until folding. They played fan favorite Ginebra hard, even narrowing the gap in the last three minutes of the game, but fell just short. There is a marked improvement in their execution, more maturity to their game, and there are building blocks for future conferences on the roster. Patience is still necessary, however.

Marcus Douthit leads Blackwater to their first win in franchise history. (Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)Marcus Douthit leads Blackwater to their first win in franchise history. (Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

The story is a little different for KIA. With the team name changed from “Sorento” to “Carnival” between conferences, jokes were even made that the new name was apt due to the quality of play. However, after seven games, the Carnival are at 3-4, with the three wins coming against recent champions San Miguel Beer, Purefoods Star, and Talk ‘N Text. If the eliminations were to end today, Kia would make the playoffs at the eighth and last spot, ahead of four teams, including Philippine Cup finalists SMB and Alaska. What changed?

First of all, the team changed coaches. It let Coach Glenn Capacio go, and promoted Coach Chito Victolero to lead in-game (and presumably, in practice), every timeout, play-to-play coach. Capacio is by no means a bad coach, but it is clear this unit is responding to Victolero in a more positive way. The addition of veteran tough guy Mark Yee (8ppg, 6.3rpg) has given the team more character, a certain haughtiness that it lacked before. Surely, he has rubbed off on some of the younger talent. Leo Avenido (10ppg), a journeyman point producer picked up just before the tournament, provides veteran leadership as well, together with the ability to make buckets, even under pressure. LA Revilla and Jayare/JR Buensuceso (combined averages of about 16ppg and 8apg) are ably leading the team sharing point guard duties. Rookie center Kyle Pascual is not being embarrassed up front and Reil Cervantes, the team’s leading scorer in the Philippine Cup, is back after missing a few games, and is, as always, ready to shoot. So is Hyram Bagatsing who, out of nowhere, led the Kia locals in scoring against TNT with 21 points, six out of seven three-pointers, and was named Best Player of the Game, the first time in four wins Revilla was not selected as BPG.

One player, though, more than all of the above, has made the biggest (pun intended) difference. Peter John “PJ” Ramos, the 7’3” ¾ import from Puerto Rico, national teammate of JJ Barea, who tortured Gilas Pilipinas at the FIBA World Cup, and former Petron/SMB import Renaldo Balkman, has been a pillar of strength in the middle, averaging hulking numbers of 32ppg, 20.3rpg, and 3apg, and giving opposing teams and their imports fits, especially in the paint where he wreaks havoc on all defenders.

Being one of the two tallest imports in PBA history (Bruno Sundov of Rain or Shine from two seasons ago is the other), he has shown court smarts, a willingness to lead, a penchant for scoring with a minimum amount of moves, and the demeanor to intimidate the opposition by just looking at them. Ramos is the prime reason why KIA has defied the odds. He has been consistent, more solid offensively than anyone might have though, with the ability to hit free throws, and pass out of double teams to set up his teammates.

During KIA timeouts, Ramos, just 29, is very vocal and even in-game, he pulls his younger, and older, teammates to talk strategy, to give instructions, to execute towards a win. Complementing him perfectly is the smallest man on the team, Revilla, who is as daring as they come, not afraid to take big shots, drive against much bigger opponents (which is almost always the case), and playing the “coach on the floor” role very well. Ramos and Revilla, together with Coach Victolero, have helped this team believe they can compete and, if close enough at the end, even win the game. Maybe the man with the title of Head Coach, Manny Pacquiao, provides a little inspiration and push here and there, but let’s give credit where it’s truly due and acknowledge the players who have worked hard game-in and game-out to dazzle the fans and provide every underdog an example to follow, proving that, indeed, hard work works.

On Saturday, February 28, Blackwater and KIA will face each other for the second time in their young PBA life, at the San Juan Arena. The game was originally scheduled to be played in Tubod, Lanao del Norte, a frequent PBA On-tour destination, but was moved to Metro Manila due to some concerns. The teams played a close game in their first meeting, with Kia coming from behind to win. We expect a similar encounter this time around. The difference though is that this time, both teams, more so Kia, know they can win in the PBA, that they can compete with any team, and that their players have the talent and desire to succeed in this league. Hopefully, they will not disappoint and give us all a great game.

How quickly fortunes can change in sports. One injury, one trade, or one or two additions to the roster can lead to transformation. When the circumstances come together, the best can emerge from individuals and teams. We think Blackwater and KIA still have a ways to go, but they seem to be finding shortcuts en route to their destination. Only a conference and half into their PBA stints, these teams have improved drastically. The young ones of the league are growing up very quickly. Elder teams best beware.