Under increased pressure from the Westports Malaysia Dragons, the Singapore Slingers wilted in Game Two of the Asean Basketball League (ABL) Finals yesterday, going down 67-83 in Kuala Lumpur.
The Dragons thus get a crucial win at the Maba Stadium to level the series at one game apiece, after the Slingers had taken Game One 84-80 at the same venue on Friday. The first team to three wins takes the title.
The series resumes with Game Three at the OCBC Arena in Singapore on Friday, with Game Four on Sunday, as the Slingers attempt to win their first ABL title in front of their home crowd.
Yesterday, however, the Dragons responded in style after their opening home loss, displaying the attacking flair that was missing in Game One in front of a fired-up crowd.
The Slingers' rearguard defence, the ABL's best with an average of just 71 points conceded per game, failed to handle the pace and power of the hosts' offence throughout, with all four Dragons imports hitting double figures.
Centre Reginald Johnson led the Dragons with 18 points, while Jason Brickman (13) and Matthew Wright (12) also weighed in. Forward Calvin Godfrey made up for his subdued Game One effort with a Man-of-the-Match performance of 15 points and 16 rebounds.
However, Dragons' coach Ariel Vanguardia credited the team's defence instead, saying: "We sustained the intensity defensively in the second half, and we managed to isolate (the Slingers) team.
"Today, we showed that we can defend, which nobody gives us any credit for. And the scoring follows when we make good stops."
The Dragons, who boast the best offence in the six-team league with an average of 93.2 points per game, never relinquished their early lead and opened up an 18-point margin in the third quarter.
Such was the eagerness to maintain their attacking momentum that Johnson even assisted in mopping perspiration off the court, after a foul was called in that period.
Through centre Justin Howard's game-high 24 points, the Slingers managed to narrow the gap to nine points midway through the fourth quarter. Yet they could get no closer, and when the American fouled out with about three minutes left, it effectively ended the fightback.
The Slingers struggled to get into any form of rhythm throughout, with the Dragons harrying them into turnovers and rushed shots. They had more field-goal attempts (74) than the hosts (72), but converted just 32 per cent in a frustrating outing under the rim.
Selfish play also crept into the Slingers' game, as they eschewed the teamwork-based playing style which had been the bedrock of their 10-match winning streak during the regular season.
Slingers coach Neo Beng Siang was understandably unhappy with his charges' deflated performance.
He said: "Our defence was not doing well, and our offence was also not working as a team. A couple of times we held back and let them have easy three-pointers, and they smashed us in rebounds.
"Of course, winning one away game, we will have home-court advantage next... but we really need to prepare our defence for it, and be more disciplined."
•Tickets for Game 3 are available at http://www.sportshub.com.sg