MANILA, Philippines -- A change in mindset paid off for Phoenix Super LPG big man Justin Chua, who finally broke out of a troublesome slump just when the Fuel Masters needed it most.
Chua, 32, was among the standout players of the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup, as he led the league in blocks and emerged as a candidate for Most Improved Player. But his level of play plummeted in the 2021 edition of the All-Filipino conference, wherein his numbers were down across the board.
He put up just 6.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 0.6 block per game in the All-Filipino Cup, while shooting only 36.7% from the field including a ghastly 9.1% from beyond the arc. A year before, Chua had averaged 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game, and shot a respectable 34.5% from long distance.
Against the NLEX Road Warriors on Christmas Day, he finally came through with his best performance of the season.
With the Fuel Masters playing sans injured import Paul Harris, Chua scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three-point range. He also had six rebounds and a steal in 25 minutes of playing time, as Phoenix hacked out a 102-93 win to give NLEX its first loss of the Governors' Cup.
"It's been a long time coming for Justin. He's really been struggling, for the last 20 games or so," Phoenix Super LPG coach Topex Robinson said.
Chua's scoring total against NLEX was more than he had scored in their first four games combined. Prior to Christmas Day, he had totaled just 10 points in four games, making only four of 21 field goals. He had missed the first six three-pointers he attempted in the conference.
The former Ateneo Blue Eagle credited a shift in his mentality for his breakout game.
"Sorry pero baka censored," he said during his walk-off interview after earning Player of the Game honors. "Pero 'yung mindset ko today, I don't give a f*** eh."
"Bahala na," he added. "I just played my game. I didn't worry about anything, 'yung mga voices outside. So ayun, maganda naman 'yung bunga."
"So sana, ito na 'yung simula," he also said.
Robinson said that throughout Chua's slump, they never lost confidence in their big man.
"What's important there was, his teammates were encouraging him, even in practice. You know, we try to lift him up. He really was struggling. He wanted to help the team but again, he was there, but he wasn't," the coach said.
Robinson revealed that Chua had asked him to play their "other guys" instead of him, but the coach continued to give him meaningful minutes. Ahead of the NLEX game, Chua was averaging well over 15 minutes per contest for Phoenix Super LPG.
"He was sacrificing himself, but we told him that, 'You know, we trust you, and we know that game is gonna come'. And it just came in the right game," said Robinson.
While he earned great praise for his breakout performance, Chua stressed that their victory was a team effort, especially after Harris made an early exit.
Their import had played just under three minutes due to a leg injury but the Fuel Masters still came through with the victory, in the process limiting NLEX's prolific reinforcement, KJ McDaniels, to a conference-low 12 points.
"Nag-tulungan lang talaga kami, since na-injured din si Paul," said Chua. "Sabi namin, lugi kami, kasi ang galing ng import nila eh."
"We just tried to help each other talaga sa game. 'Yun 'yung formula," he stressed.