Making his return to Air21, Mike Cortez showed last night why he remains a marquee name in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).
Delivered to the Express' door in a trade that brought him back to his former team, Cortez showed his all-around skills as he powered Air21 to an 86-85 win over Barako Bull in the PBA Philippine Cup last night at the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City.
The 6-foot-0 Cortez, known in the pro league as the 'Cool Cat', registered 24 points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals in 25 minutes of play, and his steady play proved crucial for Air21, which won two straight for the first time this season.
A step-back jumper by Cortez put Air21 ahead for good, 86-85, with 58.1 seconds left in the game.
The Express held on to the lead with two defensive stops, first when Rob Reyes blocked the layup of Doug Kramer, and Air21 followed it up with a solid team defense by forcing Barako Bull to a 24-second shot clock violation.
The victory came a week after Air21 stunned Petron Blaze with a 97-76 beating, and it improved the team's win-loss record at 3-5. It was also three days after they got Cortez in deal with Barangay Ginebra, which got in return, rookie Yousef Taha.
The loss dropped Barako Bull's slate to 3-6.
Prior to that jumper, Cortez, who turns 32 today, actually buried a booming three-pointer that put Barako Bull's lead to a single point, 84-85, with 1:24 left. In the next play, Rico Villanueva lost control of the ball when he went down on the floor clutching his right knee.
Villanueva was helped out by several teammates back to the Energy Cola bench. The former Ateneo stalwart did not return.
"It's good I was able to get back, and it's good he was able to manage my minutes," said Cortez, referring to Air21 coach Franz Pumaren, who mentored him when they were together with the De La Salle University from 2000 to 2002.
"Just be aggressive, look for the shot, and forget how tired I'll be. It was fun out there, sana hindi hanggang dito lang, sana tuloy tuloy," added Cortez, who played 15 games with Air21 during the 2010 Fiesta Cup before joining Ginebra.