Asean Basketball League Finals: Singapore Slingers in mood to slay Malaysian rivals

Preview for the Asean Basketball League play-off finals between the Singapore Slingers and Westports Malaysia Dragons, on March 9, 2016.
Preview for the Asean Basketball League play-off finals between the Singapore Slingers and Westports Malaysia Dragons, on March 9, 2016. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Singapore side hope to extend fine away run in ABL Finals against Dragons

It has been a gruelling season of high-intensity basketball since October. Injuries, suspensions, buzzer-beating shots and heartbreaking defeats; the Slingers have seen it all.

Twenty regular-season games and two semi-final series later, a familiar rivalry - Singapore versus Malaysia - will be at play as the battle to be crowned the basketball kings of South-east Asia begins.

The Slingers are in Kuala Lumpur, home of the Westports Malaysia Dragons, for the first two matches of the Asean Basketball League Finals. The first game tips off tonight at the Maba Stadium.

As top seeds, the Dragons will enjoy home-court advantage, with the first two games at home before two reverse fixtures in Singapore. The first to three wins will be crowned champions. A fifth game, if needed, will be played back in Malaysia.

Though neither team have won the championship since its inception in 2009, it is no big surprise these two sides are facing off in the final. The Dragons finished top of the ABL table, while the Slingers were second.

The series will pit the league's best offence against the best defence. The Dragons' imports Matthew Wright (23.1 points a game), Reginald Johnson (21.6) and Calvin Godfrey (21.3) were among the top five scoring leaders in the regular season. In contrast, the Slingers' title charge has come on the back of an aggressive pressing game, which has seen their opponents limited to an average of only 75.6 points a game - the lowest in the league.

There is little to separate the two teams. Their regular-season win-loss records are identical (16-4). They also split their head-to-head series with two wins and two losses each. But the Dragons had their snouts in front by virtue of a better point difference across the four games.

They can also draw confidence from the last time the two teams faced off, when they secured an 89-80 win at the OCBC Arena last month. Significantly, that result allowed the Dragons to depose the Slingers, who had occupied top spot for much of the season.

Yet with the Dragons appearing to be favourites, coach Ariel Vanguardia remained grounded. He told The Straits Times: "There's always pressure in every game. Whoever handles adversity will prevail. The Slingers are tough, we need to bring our 'A' game every minute."

 As with any Singapore-Malaysia sporting match-up, fireworks are to be expected. In their last visit to KL in December, the Slingers won the ill-tempered game 78-71.

The Dragons' Kwaan Yoong Jing and the Slingers' Wong Wei Long were suspended for one and two games respectively, while Slinger Wu Qingde and Godfrey were fined for unsportsmanlike fouls.

But Slingers assistant coach Michael Johnson played down the fiery encounter and dismissed Wong's altercation (he was caught flailing his arm at Dragons' Wong Yi Hou) as a "storm in a teacup".

Said the American on the emotional aspect of the rivalry: "It adds to the excitement, it adds to the intensity and the passion of the game, but at the end of the day, the team that settles down and plays basketball, focuses on that and executes, they'll win the game.

"There's joy when either team wins, but if you need that as extra motivation, you're probably going to struggle. National pride involves the national team… for us, we are looking to win the ABL, and (the Dragons) are the team in our way."

The first two games may be in Malaysia, but the Slingers may ironically find comfort away from home. They won eight and lost two on the road in the regular season, the same as their home record. With their 95-66 play-off semi-finals win over defending champions Hi-Tech in Bangkok last Friday, they have now won eight away games on the trot.

Yet with the talent in the Malaysian team, Johnson is anticipating a tough battle over the series. He said: "With four high-scoring players, it's difficult to focus on a single player. For us to beat Malaysia, it's going to take a team effort, defensively and on the offensive end."

Despite this being the first time the Slingers have entered the finals, point guard Wong, who has been with the team since 2009, insists they have "learnt a lesson" from their last outing in Malaysia and will "focus on grinding it through and playing our normal game".

The 27-year-old, who scored a play-off career high of 29 points in Game 2 of the semi-finals, said: "We do have a better track record away from home… we're just going to treat it as a normal game, and play like we have for the whole season.

"If we can win the championship and get the ring, it's going to be a wild thing for us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'Slingers in mood to slay'. Print Edition | Subscribe