MANILA, Philippines – When the Meralco Bolts advanced to the finals of the 2016 PBA Governors' Cup last season, they reacted accordingly.
"We all celebrated like it was the end of the world," coach Norman Black recalled a season later.
That finals appearance – a first in the history of the Meralco franchise – ended in heartbreak. In an instantly iconic moment, Justin Brownlee knocked down a buzzer-beating, championship-sealing triple over Allen Durham to give Ginebra the title in six games.
One year later, the Bolts are back in the PBA Governors' Cup finals, where they will again face the Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings in a mouth-watering rematch. Virtually every member of the Meralco team that lost to Ginebra last year is still around, from their coach to their import, to their young guns in Baser Amer and Chris Newsome.
But the Bolts are a vastly different team now. For one, they added a plethora of weapons in Ranidel de Ocampo, Garvo Lanete, and Mike Tolomia – players who can make life easier for Durham and Amer, their primary playmakers. For another, their mindset has completely changed.
When they swept the Star Hotshots in the semifinals to clinch a finals spot, their reaction was in stark contrast to what happened last year, said Black.
"This year, there was no celebration. There was no celebration from the coaches or the players, there was no celebration in the locker room," he revealed.
"We have a higher goal in mind," Black further stressed.
Indeed, everyone in the Meralco franchise speaks of their determination to get the job done this time around, after falling painfully short last year.
"We want to win the championship," said Black. "We know that we're up against a tough team, we know it's not going to be easy. We know we're up against a great coach, the winningest coach in the league, but at the same time, we have our goals that we want to reach."
Amer, who averaged just over 12 minutes per game in last season's finals but is sure to get a bigger role this time around, said: "Wala kaming experience (last year), pero ngayon, alam na namin kung paano ang laro ng Finals."
Reigning Rookie of the Year Chris Newsome admitted that when they made the finals last season, he spent a lot of time "just taking in the moment" and basking in the experience of his first-ever championship series in the PBA.
"This time, it will be different," he vowed. "We know what to expect. We've had a long year to prepare for this, basically. It's not just about making it to the finals, but coming out with a championship this year."
Durham, the front-runner for Best Import honors, is especially determined to help the Bolts raise the trophy this year. It was Durham who was defending Brownlee when the Ginebra import hit the game-winning shot, and try as he might, no one has allowed him to forget about it.
"I've been trying to move on, but the media, they still bring it up and stuff like that," said Durham. "I've forgotten about it, but it's still kind of fueling me to get the win and hold the trophy."
Like most of his teammates in Meralco, last season's finals stint was Durham's first. Though that experience ended in heartbreak, it was also a lesson that Durham took to heart.
"Now, we know what to expect," he pointed out. "We played Ginebra in that series, and we played Ginebra this conference. The crowd is not going to be a factor. I think that experience alone is going to help us a lot."
Of course, simply being a more experienced and battle-scarred team is no guarantee of victory. Meralco has greatly improved, yes, and they have surrounded Durham with perimeter shooters who figure to give Ginebra fits on defense.
But Ginebra is still Ginebra, and the Gin Kings also added a weapon of their own in Greg Slaughter, who missed all of the 2016 Governor's Cup due to injury. Brownlee is still there, and is still capable of taking charge for the Gin Kings down the stretch if need be.
The one thing that's for sure is that this time around, the Bolts refuse to be satisfied with just making it to the finals. The "happy to be here" mindset that they had last year has completely disappeared.
"None of that anymore," Black said firmly. "We want to win."
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