As much as he hates their current situation, Phoenix head coach Louie Alas could not deny how rough the PBA break has been for his squad.
Last week, the Fuel Masters continued to look more like the team that finished 4-7 last conference rather than the one that posted a franchise-best 9-2 record in the Philippine Cup after getting caught in a 103-90 loss against Rain or Shine in a tune-up -- their third double-digit defeat in a practice game after getting blown out by NLEX and Meralco a week before.
"Super, super struggling. We're not in game condition," Alas admitted. "Since we still don't have that game mentality, our consistency is still pretty low."
"We had a long vacation. On my part, that's my fault. I perhaps gave them too much vacation. They're still not deserving of a vacation, after all. That's my mistake," he rued.
So frustrated was Alas with the state of things that it got to a point where his booming voice rang loudly in a relatively quiet Upper Deck gym during a timeout in the second period, where he had some choice words for what was a seemingly lackluster effort against the Elasto Painters. At that point, the cold-shooting Phoenix was behind by 20 after ending the opening quarter facing a 32-15 deficit.
"I kind of lost my cool in the second quarter," said Alas in Filipino. "I asked them about trust -- my trust in them, their trust in me and in the system. Now if 'di niyo gusto yung ginagawa natin, 'di na natin gagawin. Eh 'di naman sila kumikibo. Sa'kin, 'pag 'di kumibo, okay lang sa kanila."
The final score showed otherwise, but Phoenix performed relatively better after that tongue-lashing as players started closing out on shooters and running back on defense in transition. Rain or Shine's offense was still too slick for them, but Alas said it was the effort that counted.
"Even if we challenged the threes, Rain or Shine still made them. I wasn't about to say anything because they were defending. 'Di 'yung mag-error tayo, you will hang your shoulder at 'yung pisngi niyo abot gustong makarating sa floor," he said.
"I wasn't after the win in that game. I just wanted all of us to learn. And that's what I do -- turning the negative into positive. That's what my post-game talk to them was all about. At least 'yung unang game super worse, 'yung pangalawa worse, eto medyo bad na lang. 'Yung next game namin against a Korean team, hopefully maging good na kami."
Seeing those marked improvements will be crucial for a Phoenix side that will continue to miss Calvin Abueva, who still has no definite timeline set for a return from his indefinite suspension, to begin the Governors' Cup.
"That's why he's called a game-changer. I told them last conference I'd allow [our struggles] because we weren't able to practice with Calvin. But this time we are prepared [for the fact] that the PBA will not lift Calvin's suspension. So if they're doing this, they have to try a little bit more. Each and everyone," the coach said.
Alas said the team already accepted that reality after team manager Paolo Bugia -- who was last in contact with Abueva around two weeks ago -- and Phoenix management were not given any new guidelines despite forwarding a request to have Calvin commit to community service, like what the league office ordered San Miguel forward Arwind Santos to do after his incident with TNT import Terrence Jones.
"That's so we would know when he'd be able to return. But he wasn't given parameters, any guidelines. And I don't know why. That's why Calvin's been playing through exhibition games. He can't do anything, he has no salary. He needs to live," Alas said.
On the bright side, the Fuel Masters will be able to look forward to gearing up for a bounce-back conference with their most dynamic offensive options present. Jason Perkins, despite playing limited minutes, appears to be making a hasty recovery from a minor shoulder injury, while Matthew Wright's participating in games even if the foot injury he sustained in Gilas Pilipinas' last week of practice hasn't fully healed yet.
Eugene Phelps is also back for another tour of duty with Phoenix after posting terrific averages of 29.8 points on 46 percent shooting, 18.0 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.0 blocks per game last year, although Alas wants the scoring machine to pass the rock more after the import ran into some tough walls on defense against Rain or Shine in the tune-up.
"[H]e needs to be a lot better because he's been scouted here. All of the teams are [going to be] leaving his teammates [open] because the scouting report on him is that he'll force the action. But one man can't do it alone, so I told him to share the basketball and be a willing passer," Alas noted.
Phoenix will have a shot at getting their first win of the break when they face a Korean ball club on September 12 in Ortigas.
"I told them if they want to get blown out, like what's happening in FIBA, they can play the way we played. The Koreans are deadshots," he said.
Getting that win should give Alas and the Fuel Masters an added reason to be cheerful about in the midst of a tough midyear for them.
"It's a bit frustrating, but I won't stop," said Alas. "Hopefully this Phoenix melodrama comes to an end."