Basketball: A crown awaits the Slingers in the Dragons' lair

Justin Howard and Wong Wei Long making themselves comfortable yesterday before the team bus left for Woodlands Checkpoint en route to Kuala Lumpur for Game Five of the ABL Finals.
Justin Howard and Wong Wei Long making themselves comfortable yesterday before the team bus left for Woodlands Checkpoint en route to Kuala Lumpur for Game Five of the ABL Finals. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Slingers travel to familiar court for decisive game against Dragons, citing defence as key

It is a strange sensation for a team to find an away arena as familiar as their home ground.

But that was exactly how the Singapore Slingers felt when they stepped onto Kuala Lumpur's Maba Stadium court for light training last night, ahead of today's Asean Basketball League (ABL) Finals Game 5 clash against the Westports Malaysia Dragons.

The reason is simple - they have already played at the Dragons' "lair" four times this season, twice during the regular season and twice in this best-of-five Finals series.

Just as the Finals are tied at 2-2, the Slingers have the same win-loss record at the Maba Stadium - with a victory during the regular season, and a vital Game 1 win.

They will have to beat the top-seeded Dragons again in today's winner-takes-all showdown to clinch their first ABL title.

To do so, they believe that defence holds the key.

NECK AND NECK

We can probably play each other 16 times and it will be even... it's that close.

MICHAEL JOHNSON, Slingers' assistant coach, on the close rivalry with the Dragons.

Said assistant coach Michael Johnson: "Our defence is what we've hung our hat on the whole year. In Game 5 we've got to restrict the Dragons to similar scores like in Game 1 (84-80) and Game 4 (75-73).

"If we can do that or lower, we have a good chance of winning the game."

Captain Desmond Oh, who has keyed the Slingers' top-notch rearguard action, exhorted his team-mates to follow his example.

The 29-year-old told The Straits Times yesterday: "I have to help to shut down their shooters and point guard, and to cut down on their fast breaks.

"But it's not just about me. If the whole team plays defence well, we will be fine."

They will, however, need to shake off any after-effects of a 6am coach ride up to the Malaysian capital yesterday, and be at their best as they prepare for an intense game in which no one will yield an inch.

Defence aside, the Slingers must also avoid another cold start to the game. They have never led at the end of the first quarter in any of the four Finals games, including the Game 1 win in which they trailed 14-23 before making a comeback.

 

Johnson is keen for his charges to seize the upper hand from the get-go today. He said: "If you start well, you can silence the crowd a little bit, and then you can settle down into your game plan. That's what we're aiming for."

It will indeed be vital to subdue the home crowd, who were particularly vociferous in Game 2 as the Dragons won comfortably, 83-67.

This will be the ninth encounter between the sides this ABL season.

"We can probably play each other 16 times and it will be even. This is a best-of-five series, someone's going to win it, but it's that close," said Johnson.

"At the end of the day, whoever wants it the most and executes the best, offensively and defensively, will come away with the victory." 

It will not be a breeze for the Slingers against the team who trounced them 90-72 in Game 3.

Yet, with a travelling crew of 250 fans backing the team, Oh admitted that he has watched Wong Wei Long's buzzer-beating Game 4 winner several times. He said: "The team are pumped, especially after the way we won Game 4.

"I can't wait to play the Dragons again, we're confident of beating them."


ABL FINALS

Game 5: Dragons v Slingers

StarHub Ch205 & 76.25MHz, 2.30pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'A CROWN AWAITS AT THE LAIR'. Print Edition | Subscribe