What a run it's been so far for the Phoenix Fuel Masters.
Currently sporting a 4-0 record in the 2019 Honda PBA Philippine Cup, they're the only remaining undefeated squad in the league. They're coming off a dominating 114-95 victory over the Blackwater Elite, continuing to build on their best start in franchise history. It's been one of the better stories this season for a team that has built itself through wise choices in the Draft, plus a stunning trade, to rise to the top of the standings, especially in a conference that has been dominated by San Miguel for the past four years.
How has Phoenix achieved this? There are a few ways to answer this. Let's take a look at some of them.
Commitment on both ends of the court
It goes without saying that a great way to guarantee team success is to be great on both offense and defense. But in the past, there have been teams that have struggled on either offense or defense, despite being excellent on the other end. Case in point: Ginebra in their title run in the Commissioner's Cup, and the Magnolia Hotshots in the Governor's Cup. They didn't set the world on fire with their scoring prowess, but they were so disciplined and relentless on offense, teams simply couldn't score enough to defeat them. Their defense compensated for their offensive issues.
A team like the Fuel Masters is different, though. What they're doing this conference is being rock solid on both sides. They're averaging 102 points, which for 4th in the league and only two points lower than the number one scoring team, the NorthPort Batang Pier.
On defense, the team surrenders 92.3 points per contest, which ranks them 8th overall. While that doesn't seem like too impressive a number, consider the point differential between the squad and its opponents, which is 9.7 points. Amongst all three teams either with winning records or at an even .500, that's the highest by a considerable margin.
It becomes even more impressive if you consider what the Fuel Masters were doing a year ago. In the 2018 Philippine Cup, Phoenix only averaged 93.1 points, while giving up a whopping 96.5 which was second-worst behind only the then-Kia Picanto.
The improvements have come on both ends of the floor in the second season under Coach Louie Alas. Slowly but surely, he has given the team its own identity - unselfish basketball with no superstars hogging possessions, quick substitutions to ensure energy on defense, and a relentless, hounding full-court press with the purpose of making games a miserable slog for opponents.
There's no easy way to put this - Phoenix's games can be difficult to watch at times. Sure, there's always the chance of a vintage Calvin Abueva game, or an offensive shooting clinic from Matthew Wright, but more often than not, Phoenix is looking for something else. All game long, they're hunting for easy baskets, and relentlessly aiming to break down defenses and score in the paint.
And the best way to get easy points? Head to the free throw line.
There's simply no team in the PBA that can match Phoenix's eagerness to get to the charity stripe. Not even June Mar Fajardo and San Miguel, or the hard-driving Stanley Pringle and NorthPort Batang Pier are at their level.
They average a whopping 35.8 free throw attempts per game, and make an average of 25.5. That's so much more than the other squads, it's not worth comparing, but the team with the second-most free throw attempts is Rain or Shine, averaging 25.8 attempts and 18.2 makes per contest.
The attempts add up though, and sometimes the games can stretch to close to three hours with how Phoenix plays. But you can't knock the results. When you play Phoenix, they're going to come at you relentlessly, led of course by one familiar face...
Player with most free throws attempts per game? Calvin Abueva with a league-leading 9.5 attempts.
Number one in free throws made? Calvin Abueva again with 6.2 makes per contest.
Guess who the top rebounder is? If you guessed Calvin Abueva, then you're absolutely right. He averages 12 rebounds per contest. Not only does he lead his team in those three categories, Abueva leads the entire league.
He's been the biggest difference in the Fuel Masters' engine. Improved play from Jason Perkins, Justin Chua, and a rejuvenated JC Intal have greatly helped matters, as has Matthew Wright's consistency and the injection of Alex Mallari in the lineup. But at the end of the day, so much of what Phoenix is doing right now can be attributed to Abueva's impact on the floor.
His playing style makes Phoenix a hard-nosed relentless squad. He displays a unique confidence and brashness on the floor has seeped into everything the team does. Wright attacks the rim like he knows that he can get buckets against anyone, Doug Kramer is throwing 'bows like it's 2015, LA Revilla is throwing no-look passes and behind-the-back dimes, and Justin Chua is shooting one-legged fadeaways that no one in the league is attempting.
All this is to say that it's looking like Phoenix's gamble of acquiring "The Beast" has paid off big time. But times are about to get rougher. Coming up for Phoenix are dates against a rejuvenated NLEX squad, a red-hot Rain or Shine crew, and the Beard Bros of NorthPort. Now we'll see just what this squad is made of. Odds are that if you have Abueva on your side, you know the answer.