Phoenix starts hard, long journey to reach PBA’s Promised Land

Jason Perkins (with ball) and the Fuel Masters refused to be held down by the Bolts despite a slight bump at the start. Phoenix will now be shooting to get to uncharted waters and hopefully go all the way. —AUGUST DELA CRUZ

The revelries inside the Phoenix Super LPG locker room came in short bursts on Sunday night.

Understandably so. The Fuel Masters, after all, still have two more mountains to scale in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Commissioner’s Cup before they go wild on a celebration for the ages.

The first of those two treks will begin on Wednesday against Magnolia, the league’s top-seeded club. But with a surplus of leaders and hungry youngsters, head coach Jamike Jarin is liking his chances.

“I’m happy with the way things are going,” he said on his way out of Mall of Asia Arena, on the heels of an 88-84 victory over Meralco in a game the Fuel Masters needed to play after losing in their first chance in the quarterfinals. The win may have come a game late, but they are in just their third Final Four appearance nonetheless.

“The leadership of RJ (Jazul), the leadership of (Jason) Perkins, of RR (Garcia) and of (Javee) Mocon. [Those] are the guys who are really making this team overachieve. So it has been a collective effort.”

Boosted by the presence of team owner Dennis Uy, the hungry Fuel Masters bounced back from a stinging 116-107 triple overtime loss last Friday.

The veterans’ grit, stacked with the all-around brilliance of import Johnathan Williams III and young guns Tyler Tio, Kenneth Tuffin and Ricci Rivero, should give the Fuel Masters a fighting chance against the league’s traditional defensive juggernaut. But Perkins is using an early slight to further fuel Phoenix’s drive.

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“Everybody slept on us. They didn’t think of us to be here. But we’re gonna try our best,” he said, referring to preseason projections where Phoenix was hardly a pick.

‘Different teams’

Interestingly, there should be no shortage of inspiration for Perkins, the club’s finest local with 14.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game average, as he is also one of the three holdovers from the 2020 Philippine Cup squad—when the league played in the bubble in Angeles—that was the last to reach the semifinals.

That series against TNT went down to the deciding Game 5.

“Two completely different teams. I think it’s just me, RJ, and RR who are still here. So it’s a completely new [team],” said Perkins as the 2020 team was still bannered by Calvin Abueva. “But I think we’ve prepared for it, prepared our best. So yeah, definitely excited to get back there.

“That team was also the last squad outside of the PBA’s two top conglomerates to have reached the Final Four. So naturally, Perkins and Jarin—an assistant during that campaign over three years ago—would want to take this one even further.

“Everybody’s expecting Magnolia to win. But it’s a series, so let’s see,” said Jarin.

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“The one who stays healthy is going to win the series. I hope for both teams to be healthy so it would be a fair and beautiful game come Wednesday,” he added. INQ

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