Shabazz Muhammad’s stirring 57-point performance is an indication of how talent-laden San Miguel is.
On the flip side, his main role in the Beermen’s comeback from a 26-point deficit can also been as somewhat of a what-if for the Meralco Bolts, who were on the losing end of a playoff-like battle that occurred Saturday, March 5 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Muhammad displayed why he was able to spend five seasons playing in the NBA in the second half, putting 45 behind a barrage of three-pointers and explosive drives that enabled SMB to end the eliminations at 7-4 with a good chance at a twice-to-beat advantage.
“I told my teammates that once my shots gets on, the people are gonna be in trouble because they can’t sag off,” said Muhammad, who felt exhausted but elated during a television interview following SMB’s 115-110 win.
“I’m so tired right now. But, man. That was a great win,” he added after producing the highest single-game scoring output since 2016 when NLEX's Al Thornton dropped 69 and SMB's Tyler Wilkerson had 58 in the same game.
It was the best in the three games Muhammad has appeared since arriving in Manila almost two weeks ago to replace fellow ex-NBA player Orlando Johnson in a bid to have SMB shake off an inconsistent campaign in the eliminations.
He gave a prelude of what to expect in a loss to perennial contender Magnolia Pambansang Manok, began to show what he’s made off in a win against Rain or Shine before letting loose against Meralco.
Meralco was supposed to be Muhammad’s destination, initially agreeing to reinforce the team for the season-ending conference a month before the start.
But the Bolts suddenly had to do another search when Muhammad backed out at the last minute, saying that he had a family matter to attend to. The team eventually got Tony Bishop, who at the start of the conference made Muhammad’s loss seem okay.
The Bolts may have come into the game with a chip on their shoulder, and their defense was able to limit Muhammad’s production to 12 in the first half.
Forcing turnovers led to baskets for Meralco, which eventually took a 70-46 lead at the break.
A Chris Banchero layup made it 72-46 seconds into the third, but the Bolts were in penalty early, which contributed to the start of Muhammad’s eruption.
Muhammad looked like he couldn’t miss, and saw SMB make a huge turnaround in a snap of the finger. But Muhammad cooled off a bit while Meralco made some adjustments to retake the lead in the fourth that didn’t last long.
Meralco was clinging on a 110-109 lead when Muhammad got a whistle on Bong Quinto, who tried to draw a charge with 29 seconds. But Muhammad couldn’t convert both freebies, and Cliff Hodge to have firm grip of the ball.
But June Mar Fajardo somehow got to take the ball away from Hodge, and Muhammad was able to make a retrieve for the go-ahead basket, a lead SMB didn’t relinquish in the end as Meralco went empty-handed in its final two possessions.
“I thought the second one was going in but man, June Mar, I mean he's a load in there,” he said. “He's a beast. He's played so hard and man, I just appreciate him for that because if the ball didn't bounce off right there, maybe they would've won the game.
“That was all on June Mar, and he was definitely Player of the Game with that one,” added Muhammad.
Coach Leo Austria earlier in the week admitted how the constant changes have affected SMB’s campaign, first with Johnson replacing Brandon Brown followed by Muhammad arrival, aside from the signings of Rodney Brondial and Jericho Cruz as unrestricted free agents.
But the win may be the turning point SMB, with Muhammad at the forefront, needed in order to make a serious title run.