If it walks like a champion and defends like a champion and shares the ball like a champion…then it’s definitely the De La Salle Green Archers you’re referring to.
As soon as Arnold Van Opstal’s name was called as part of Saturday’s starting unit against the NU Bulldogs, I could tell something special was going to happen. Special and oh so familiar. No frills or theatrics, just textbook De La Salle championship basketball.
While the return to offensive form of Van Opstal and Almond Vosotros was most evident, it was the solid, cohesive team play on both ends of the floor that is the largest symptom to signify the Green Archers are more than ready to finish out the season strong. A strong message to the few others left standing that at this point in the season–in case anyone has carelessly forgotten at their own risk—more than any other team Coach Juno Sauler and his boys know by heart what it takes to be the guests of honor at a coronation.
With more conscious and disciplined floor spacing, the first possession of the Green Archers bode well for how the rest of the game would be orchestrated. The first feed to Van Opstal in the post, passing out off the quick double to Vosotros who obliges with a three-point basket from the left wing. And while the duo scored 14 of the first 16 points for La Salle, it was the involvement of almost everyone who was fielded in that allowed the defending champions to run away with the win.
Exhibiting extra patience and trust, having all five players touch the ball in numerous offensive possessions off quick passes and decisive off the ball movement, the latter part of the game turned into a showcase of hardnosed basketball that served as welcome relief more for blood pressure levels as with previous games than for hasty skepticism due to earlier ugly wins and losses.
None more so evident than in one sequence with 2 minutes left in the third quarter, with the ball going through all five players, resulting in an offensive rebound and another three-point shot by Vosotros for the first double-digit lead of the game, 49-39. I could also see how every play was being executed as if the game was on the line, especially in the second half, not because of a desire to pull off explosive baskets or highlight plays, but due to the dissatisfaction with anything that fell short of precision.
With 8:16 left in the game, note Norbert Torres uncharacteristically showing a bit of exasperation to Jeron Teng after being called for a 3-second violation when the play called for the pass to come from Sargent at the top of the key, not from the wing. And true to Coach Sauler’s metaphysical playbook of never dwelling on past mistakes aside from what can be learned in the pursuit of improvement, the next play resulted in a drive and dish by Teng to the resilient Torres from the right corner to push the lead back up to 11, 55-44.
Not getting stuck in the past, never looking too far ahead, appreciating the here and now and whatever goals and obstacles the present moment brings. Moving on as competently as possible from goal to goal, with the frame of mind and depth of character instilled by a head coach of substance and a slew of assistant coaches that is a virtual hall of fame roster for players in their respective positions.
Also true to the championship DNA of this team, doing their jobs well is its own reward. No time or energy to be expended on swagger or fluff, as Vosotros and his return to form would most definitely be entitled to. But that just isn’t him, with the same game face on through shooting slumps or hot streaks. And for anyone who though all that effort against UE last Wednesday was an exercise in futility, look back especially at Vosotros’ last three point shot of the game, and his immeasurable sigh of relief, cutting the deficit to 1 with 1.7 seconds left.
Giving us the picture-perfect reason why you keep fighting to the end. Whether in the face of huge odds that would cause the faint of heart to call it a day, any sort of momentum will only serve a player well–trusted by his entire team through thick and thin–going into the next game.
The same goes for Jason Perkins, who has finally decided to get involved by keeping his head down and playing hard, largely through encouragement by his teammates. Despite blowing cold in the first half, Perkins never stopped playing hard defense nor trusting his shot, deciding to take it outside for key jumpers and a put back with 3:39 left in the game for the biggest lead at 64-47. Along with the return to post dominance of Van Opstal, one can almost feel the quivering of the rest of the league at the prospect of facing a La Salle frontline playing at optimum levels, deliriously skipping hands with its hot shooting guards, headed into the most crucial stage of the season.
With a pair marquee players on this La Salle team making waves on ads and billboards, and others hogging highlight reels and sound bites, Norbert Torres has quietly worked his ass off the entire season. Showing the same intensity from day one and throughout all the offensive struggles of the rest of the team, not enough can be said about his relentless effort on his last season for the Green and White. Now that the others have joined the party, Torres upped his game even more, making key baskets in that second half run against NU.
With nearly everyone getting back their groove, we move closer to the equilibrium Coach Sauler finds secret pleasure in. He won’t show it, of course, but his heart must be giggling and doing cartwheels; in the same way I am pleased with the offensive coherence generated by patient ball movement rather than merely one or two players. Just like last season, with four players averaging double digits, three more with at least 7 per game, and five different players emerging as top scorer throughout the season. Without having to carry most (or all) of the scoring load, Teng can ease back into a more well rounded role with more assists and rebounds as the plays still go through him and the double/triple teams he always requires.
But it all starts and ends with defense with this La Salle team, just like last year but now only a bit more athletic and diverse, with bench players such as Julian Sargent and Prince Rivero providing indispensable relief minutes on both ends. Never showing up on the stat sheets or leading the league in defensive categories (third in points allowed), because it’s all done with the nitty gritty things that can only be pulled off if all five on the floor work together- weak side help, communication off screens, quick switching, active hands, clogging the passing lanes, hustle on 50-50 balls, court awareness.
As we all see a little more oil in the Green Machine, just a little more satisfaction coming for Coach Sauler, and still room for improvement in terms of taking care of the ball and more contribution from other bench players, among other things, it can also be gleaned that when the words “Take care of the little things” were written in the locker room as a reminder for that crucial game against the Bulldogs, it also meant taking care of each other.
Despite all our anxieties and exasperations and wild emotional swings so far in the season, this championship team takes care of business quietly. No nonsense, no melodrama. And while often mistaken for aloofness stemming from a head coach with a world-class poker face, it’s all just this team’s way of defining and exemplifying their love for the game. By playing it the way it should be played–with strongly bonded Animo spirit–and by never taking themselves and the hype they generate too seriously.
Visualize Van Opstal quietly standing up in the locker room of a deserted MOA Arena on a rainy Friday morning and walking over to Vosotros, pinning the latter’s head between his legs in a pseudo-wrestling move, eliciting giggles from the others, all while Coach Sauler’s back is turned pointing to video clips of UST’s offensive tendencies just minutes before the team’s final practice the day before last year’s title-clinching game. Or Jason Perkins being bullied and teased into blushing about a girl he fancies by Kib Montalbo and Robert Bolick on each side, all three on the floor stretching and limbering up for another grueling practice session at the Enrique Razon gym.
While much importance is rightfully placed on fundamentals, discipline, and statistics in face of the grueling odds UAAP men’s basketball flings at this team on nearly a daily basis, love for the game and each other is truly the current that runs through its fabric, and the foundation that keeps it towering over the rest. Albeit at times temporarily neglected in the hail of frustration, but never completely forgotten.
Because with a head coach who once described his mentoring approach in a succinct and suspiciously warm one-word reply (“Love.”), the heart of this La Salle team will always be 14-deep. And Animo strong.