MANILA, Philippines – With their campaign in the 2017 PBA Commissioner's on the line, Meralco head coach Norman Black pulled no punches when asked what the Bolts need to do in order to stay alive.
"It's obvious," Black said bluntly after Meralco absorbed an 84-102 beating from TNT in Game 1 of their best-of-3 quarterfinals series. "One, Alex (Stepheson) has to play better."
Stepheson, Meralco's import, had a disappointing outing as he mustered only nine points on four-of-11 shooting. He did grab 16 rebounds in the game, but the Bolts were still badly beaten on the glass, 47-36. The import averaged 17 points and 20.9 rebounds during the elimination round.
The loss to TNT was already Meralco's fourth straight in the Commissioner's Cup, and another loss will end their campaign in the mid-season conference.
What truly frustrates Black, however, is that for the first five minutes of the game, Stepheson was not even matched up against an opposing import. Instead, TNT opted to bring Joshua Smith, who was dealing with the flu, off the bench.
"They didn't even start their import tonight, which doesn't say much for their respect for my import," Black said.
"I think their import played only 18 minutes tonight, and didn't even start the game, so we have to take advantage of those situations," he stressed. "He (Stepheson) has to become more dominant. He has to become more productive for us to even have a chance."
As a former import himself, Black said he would have felt highly insulted if the other team did not start their own reinforcement.
"If you did that against me, I'm gonna get 50 on you," said Black. "So he needs to take it personal. The other team is going to come out and say, 'We can guard you with our local players,' then I would take that to heart, I would take that personal, and I would try to combat it."
Black had no explanation for Stepheson's subpar play, though he noted that his import simply lacked energy on both ends, failing to score against the TNT locals while also getting beat on the boards.
"We just need Alex to step up and do a much better job than he did tonight," Black also said.
The multi-titled coach believes that if Stepheson regains the form that made him one of the top imports at the start of the conference, then his local teammates will inevitably follow his lead and play better as well.
"A lot of times, when it's an import conference, let's face it – the import plays really well, the locals play really well," Black pointed out. "If the import is not productive, then the locals really don't play that well."
Stepheson himself offered no excuses for his poor performance. "We're on a four-game losing streak, but we can't really think about it," he said. "The next game, if you lose, you go home. All that doesn't matter. We just gotta win."
"We just gotta regroup and come back, and try to play harder," he also said.
Black, for his part, is simply hoping that Stepheson will rise to the occasion on Wednesday, when they play TNT in Game 2 of their quarterfinals series.
"We'll see how he handles it, and how he reacts," he said. "Anyway, we only have one more game left if he doesn't play well."
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