Have the Fuel Masters flipped the script?

One year ago, in the 2019 Philippine Cup, the Phoenix Fuel Masters were on the verge of making the leap to title contention. They were starting to reach new heights. Sadly, their rise was halted in the semifinals after they were on the receiving end of a gentleman’s sweep by the San Miguel Beermen. They went on a downward spiral the rest of the season.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Fuel Masters find themselves in a similar predicament. They ended the elimination round of the PBA Bubble tied with Barangay Ginebra San Miguel for the best record in the league. Now known as the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters, they’re still the same team with the same set of characters. But what’s changed to make fans believe that this group won’t come up with the same ending?

Phoenix’s downward trajectory started with Calvin Abueva’s suspension during the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup. It was a harsh penalty which initially brought tragic consequences for the Fuel Masters. They ended that conference, and the next, out of the playoff race. During the build-up of the PBA Bubble, the Fuel Masters fired Coach Louie Alas after a series of issues between the two parties.

Phoenix was clearly lost. Whatever gains they had during their magical 2019 Philippine Cup was suddenly gone. How were they going to bounce back?

The team wasn’t dealt an easy card. Their newly minted head coach, Topex Robinson, only had one month to gather his troops and to get them to buy into his new style of coaching. The rest of the team had limited time to adjust to this big change in their dynamic as a group. It was difficult, but they had no other choice to suck it up.

Photo from the PBA

When one door closes, another opens.

Jason Perkins and Justin Chua have been solid PBA players. Both of them are rotation bigs who provides a little bit of everything for your squad. But with Abueva and Doug Kramer gone, that opened up slots in the Fuel Masters rotation. Perkins and Chua took advantage of the opportunities given to them and have transformed to become close to championship-level pieces. More was expected out of the two, but no one thought they’d be able to reach this level of greatness.

Perkins has been particularly impressive. He’s continued to improve his physique as his PBA career has progressed. The added three-point shot is nice, but his slimmer frame (that’s still packed with muscle, mind you) has given him that extra boost when doing the little things for the Fuel Masters. Quicker doesn’t always mean weaker. He’s no longer that hefty, but there’s no doubt Perkins is still a powerful lefty.

Chua, on the other hand, has evolved by committing to a very specific role as rim protector of the Fuel Masters. Everyone already saw glimpses of the Great Wall of Chua during UAAP Season 73 with the Ateneo Blue Eagles. With the Fuel Masters he’s embraced the moniker, emerging as the league’s top shot blocker (1.73 blocks per game). He’s not the most athletic player, but he makes up for it with top-level awareness, composure, and impeccable timing.

Perkins and Chua’s evolution have raised the floor of the Fuel Masters. Their steady play inside gives Phoenix the kind of cushion every title-contending team needs when their shots from outside aren’t falling. Defense does win championships after all.

Photo from the PBA

But to win championships you need to win games. To win games, you need to score more your opponent. Enter Matthew Wright, who’s emerged as the favorite to win Bubble MVP.

We live in an era where the hotter you are from the outside, the higher the chances that you’ll win that game. That’s what Wright provides. If Perkins and Chua provide the floor, Wright is the ceiling.

The problem with Wright for the longest time has been consistency. You’re not always going to hit nine threes in one game, even Stephen Curry has his bad nights. It doesn’t matter if you have a record breaking 48 minutes. If you aren’t able to consistently deliver, then it’s pointless.  Given the nature of Wright’s game, how would he get over the hump?

In one word: confidence. During this Philippine Cup, Matthew Wright has turned from 1B of Phoenix to its unquestioned No. 1 option. Before, he only complimented Calvin’s game; as a matter of fact, Abueva was the one contending for BPCs during their time together.

By losing The Beast due to suspension, the Fuel Masters were forced to embrace Matthew as its franchise player. It was difficult at first for him to accept, as evidenced by their poor showings during the latter two conferences of the 2019 PBA season. But in the Bubble, he’s owned that role. His game is built for the elite. The throne is his and he’s seated firmly in it.

That’s not to take anything away from Abueva. But taking the spotlight away from the Beast was the best thing to happen for the Phoenix Fuel Masters. Even when The Beast returned from his suspension, Perkins and Chua still maintained Phoenix’s steady floor. It was still Wright who was being used as the anchor of Phoenix’s offense.

Photo from the PBA

Abueva produced, of course he was going to. The difference was, he was playing a role that best suited his style of play. He disrupted opponents and provided energy and versatility for the team. But for the role of number one guy, there are better options. Thankfully for Phoenix, they have the Wright one.

When one door closes, another opens.

Undoubtedly, this team now feels different compared to the one from last season. It all boils down to embracing new roles. That shift in mindset may just flip the script for the Fuel Masters. From their downward spiral last season, Phoenix is now rising.

Same team. Same set of characters. But now, they have an opportunity to write a brand new ending for themselves.