MANILA, Philippines -- Barangay Ginebra coach Tim Cone is aware that there were those who felt that Justin Brownlee had been struggling at the start of the 2021 PBA Governors' Cup.
Now 33 years old, Brownlee had set a high bar for himself in his previous campaigns with the Gin Kings, where he established himself as one of the finest imports in league history. He endeared himself to Ginebra fans not just with his winning ways, but also his humility.
But Brownlee had a few subpar games in the elimination round, including a relatively pedestrian 21-point effort in a Manila Clasico loss to Magnolia last Christmas.
Now that Brownlee appears to be back to his usual self, Cone pointed out that there was a reason for his early struggles.
"He was off basically for two years, he played short-time in the Middle East, but he hadn't played competitive basketball for quite a while," said the Ginebra coach.
"He came in, was one of the last imports to arrive. It was a struggle for him to get his legs," he added. "When you're shooting the ball poorly, it's usually because you don't have legs."
As the conference progressed, Brownlee's conditioning got better -- and he now appears to be reaching his peak just at the right time.
Brownlee was instrumental in Ginebra's upset of TNT in the quarterfinals, and in Game 1 of their semis series against NLEX, he put up 27 points on 9-of-18 shooting, along with 14 rebounds and six assists in a 95-86 victory.
"He's built his base up and he's playing much better. Right now, to me, he's starting to peak at this point -- in terms of shape, in terms of game," said Cone.
"He's starting to get to where he wants to be right now. He's starting to feel good," he also said. "I think that people didn't really take that into account when they thought he was struggling early in the conference."
In 14 games, Brownlee is averaging 29.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game.
With Brownlee playing at his usual level, the Gin Kings have been on a roll. They have won their last four games, and have a crucial 1-0 lead against the Road Warriors in their best-of-5 semifinals series. Their confidence is further boosted, knowing that Brownlee is there to step up when they need him.
"When you have him in the last six minutes of a basketball game... I mean he blocked shots, he got rebounds, he made shots, he made free throws," said Cone. "He's an incredible closer."
"It makes down-the-stretch basketball a lot easier when you got a guy like that that you can go to on both sides of the ball, defensively and offensively," he added.
Ginebra will target a 2-0 lead against NLEX on Friday at the Mall of Asia Arena.