With their star guard Kiefer Ravena taking his talents to the Japan B.League, the NLEX Road Warriors were expected to struggle at the resumption of the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup this week at the DHVSU Gym in Bacolor, Pampanga.
It is a steep task for any one local player to fully replicate the impact and production of the talented Ravena, yet NLEX head coach Yeng Guiao knew precisely where to find a man with the guts to take on the challenge.
The multi-titled Guiao turned to a familiar face from his days with the Rain or Shine Elasto-Painters and his belief in his trusted veteran has been rewarded in the two games since Ravena’s departure.
Now in his seventh year in the PBA, Jericho Cruz has stepped up to the challenge and taken charge of this NLEX team on both ends of the court. He has thrived once again in an expanded role under Guiao with whom he won the 2016 PBA Commissioner’s Cup while they were still with Rain or Shine.
The 6’1 swingman was named the league’s Most Improved Player and “Mr. Quality Minutes” in 2016 for his contributions that season, but their promising partnership ended abruptly after Guiao moved to NLEX in late 2016.
Meanwhile, Cruz was eventually traded by Rain or Shine to TNT in 2018 where his career then stalled. A year later, TNT dealt him to the Road Warriors where he was reunited with Guiao and slowly regained his confidence which has culminated with his strong play as of late.
The Road Warriors have won both of their games since the league’s resumption earlier this week in convincing fashion, opening with an 84-74 victory over the Alaska Aces last September 2 and a 94-76 drubbing of the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters on September 4.
NLEX has now won three straight games dating back to their win against the Terra Firma Dyip before the league went on hiatus due to imposition of the Enhanced Community Quarantine in Metro Manila earlier last month. With their latest win, they are now fourth in the standings with a 4-2 win-loss record behind the TNT Tropang Giga, the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok, and the Meralco Bolts.
It is no coincidence that their three-game winning streak has happened simultaneously with three consecutive superb performances from the athletic Cruz whose fearless drives to the basket and excellent defense have sparked the team. In their 14-point win over Terra Firma last July 25, he came off the bench and scored 15 points on seven-of-10 shooting together with four rebounds, four assists, and two steals.
Despite taking more than a month off due to the break, the former Adamson University Soaring Falcon kept his momentum and churned out 15 points, four rebounds, two assists, and four steals versus Alaska. He then put up a masterful performance against Phoenix two days later where he recorded 19 points, three rebounds, eight assists, and four steals in what was his best game of the conference by far.
Cruz’s averages for this year’s Philippine Cup are now up to 11.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and two steals per game after a slow start. He has looked as confident as ever and is once again flashing the form that made him a three-time PBA All-Star with Rain or Shine from 2016 to 2018.
If Cruz and Guiao, together with team captain Kevin Alas and the ever-reliable veteran center JR Quinahan, can sustain the Road Warriors’ winning ways in the coming weeks, it may allow Ravena to rejoin them before the end of the conference if he is able to successfully file his documents in Japan this month.
Albeit a long shot due to the quarantine requirements involved with international travel, mixing Ravena with this version of Cruz and the steady-handed Alas could make for an interesting dark horse in the postseason.
This spunky team has all the makings of the kind of roster that the fiery mentor elevates from good to great while Cruz profiles as exactly the kind of player, with his work ethic and demeanor, that Guiao turns into a superstar. It has only been two games, but Cruz has announced to the league, through his play as of late, that with or without Ravena, NLEX is here to compete.