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Stability, better pace expected as Durham returns to push Meralco

Meralco is on a mission to avoid missing the playoffs of every tournament in the 2019 PBA season by posting a convincing campaign in the Governors' Cup.

Stability will be head coach Norman Black's weapon of choice this conference, where they'll be bringing Allen Durham back into the fold. After going through a rocky Commissioner's Cup where the Bolts changed imports thrice, getting someone who had the feel and familiarity both with the team and with the league was a no-brainer.

"Last conference we changed imports three times, which doesn't really help too much," Black told ESPN5.com. "I'm sure the guys are pretty confident with him around. We won a high percentage of our games in conferences he's played with us. I'm sure the guys are happy he's back."

The Bolts can also benefit from being able to spend more time preparing with Raymond Almazan, who wasn't able to integrate himself fast enough after arriving to Meralco just five days before the team tipped off in its first game of the conference last May.

Despite dividing his time and attention between national team sessions and Meralco practices, Almazan was still able to provide Black a glimpse of what could be a formidable pairing in the frontline alongside Durham.

"Before Raymond went to China for the national team in the world championships, their combination was really, really good because AD was here for two and half, three weeks before he left to go back to the States. We were able to see them practice together for a two-week period and they looked great together so I'm hoping that will continue to be the case when they both get back," observed Black.

Durham will return on Sunday after attending the birth of his child, while Almazan has already started practicing again with Meralco on Thursday.

Pairing the two-time Best Import with Almazan up front might solve the undersized Bolts' woes in the interior, where they were often doomed by their inability to crash the defensive rebounds (league-low 34.4 per game last conference).

"Even in our (do-or-die game for the last playoff spot) against Alaska, I think we gave up 22 offensive rebounds. That's something we need to solve this conference. That's one of the reasons why we brought in AD back because he's a really good rebounder defensively and offensively. We're hoping he can take care and solve one of those problems that we have," Black noted.

Durham's presence will also bode well for Meralco's transition game. Despite Black's affinity for running the floor and playing fast, the Bolts didn't do much of that in the Commissioner's Cup as they only had 9.8 fast break points per game (second to the last). Much of their troubles in that department stem from their import situation, and Black thinks having Durham on board could cure that.

"You always look at your personnel. I was a runner as a player so of course I would like to see the guys run up and down the court very quickly. But last conference our imports were quite slow. If you have slow imports, you're not going to be able to run very much. Gani Lawal was a decent player, a good player but he was not a runner. Sometimes you just have to go with what your talent creates for you," Black said.

"I think we'll be able to run a little bit more this conference because AD is a really good defensive rebounder. That normally leads to fastbreaks. Hopefully we're able to do a little bit more of that this conference," he added.

The half-court offense should flow smoother in the Governors' Cup, too, as they immediately sought improve their janky execution on that end of the floor. Meralco wasn't able to put a lot of points on the board in the midseason and was ninth in points (94.0 per game) and field goal percentage (41.8 percent) while posting a bottom-three mark in shots inside the arc (45.7 percent).

"I'm hoping we shoot the ball better. We can be a good defensive team but it also helps if we shoot the basketball well, particularly from the three. We've been working hard on our outside shooting and our perimeter shooting too," said Black.

The coach also said he's looking at deploying two point guards at the same time in the backcourt in order to stimulate better ball movement, which was something that Meralco (11th in assists at 20.3 per game) needed more last conference despite having a surplus of ball handlers in the roster.

"It's a little bit imbalanced, if you ask me. But at the same time they're all very good players, so I'm not giving them away. If somebody wants them, they're going to have to come get them," Black answered when asked about having five point guards in the backcourt.

"In the meantime I think Nard (Pinto) can probably play the two position if necessary. Mike Tolomia can also play the two. It gives me a little bit of flexibility to be able to use two guards together even though both of them maybe a little be known as point guards," he added.

All these adjustments should help Meralco come up with a better showing, with Black saying that he wants the team to show a little more fight to close out the season.

"We're coming from the bottom, and I just want to be competitive again. If it gives us a chance of making the playoffs, making it into the semis and winning a championship, so be it. But the first step is to become competitive again, because we have not been competitive the last two conferences," Black said.