The Singapore Slingers may have won four of their first five games of the 2016-17 Asean Basketball League (ABL) season, but assistant coach Michael Johnson was cautious on whether they can emulate last season's inspirational runners-up finish.
Last Sunday, the Slingers came out 71-68 winners over Alab Pilipinas at their OCBC Arena home, rebounding from a narrow 95-97 away defeat by ABL leaders Hong Kong Eastern Long Lions on Dec 7.
That loss broke a three-match winning start by the Singapore side, but Johnson, 53, was still heartened by the results with a quarter of the season gone.
"We had a similar start last season, when we had eight wins and two losses at the Christmas break," he told The Straits Times, ahead of tomorrow's away clash against the Lions in Hong Kong.
"This year, we have six games before Christmas, and we're now 4-1. So if we can win on Thursday, we'll be in a similar position, if not better.
"But it's difficult to compare because we had a different roster then."
Last season, the Slingers relied heavily on their three foreign imports, but role players like guard Larry Liew and forward Wu Qingde enjoyed break-out seasons to give the team an added boost.
KEEPING INTENSITY FOR FULL GAME
We need more consistency over the four quarters so we don't have these ebbs and flows, and if we can play the best part of 40 minutes at this level, then we're hard to beat.
MICHAEL JOHNSON, the Slingers' assistant coach, on the team's mental focus.
Liew and Wu are still recovering from injuries and are expected to return only next month. As for the three foreigners, only Americans Xavier Alexander and Justin Howard stayed on as Filipino guard Kris Rosales left to play in the Philippine Basketball Association.
New import Alexander-Stanley Austria is still integrating into the squad, but other local players have also made strides in improving their play.
Naming forwards Leon Kwek, Ng Hanbin and guard Mitchell Folkoff as examples, Johnson said: "Leon has really matured and stepped up; Hanbin's playing a lot more minutes and Mitch has also been doing great helping us out on the defensive end."
Slingers head coach Neo Beng Siang added that, while he is happy with his side's results so far, the consistency of the team's performance in the course of each game still needs improvement.
While they eventually eked out the victory against the Pilipinas last Sunday, the visitors had led twice in the third period.
Said Neo, 55: "Sometimes we don't play as a team, especially in offence.
"Our strength is in running the floor, and we also need to work as a team in communicating that, and especially on our defence as well."
Johnson agreed, adding that apart from ramping up on defence, the Slingers also have to strengthen their mental focus during matches.
"We've had periods in our first five games where we've just locked teams down and built a pretty substantial lead, but there were other periods when we switched off and got too comfortable if we were in the lead," he said.
"We need more consistency over the four quarters so we don't have these ebbs and flows, and if we can play the best part of 40 minutes at this level, then we're hard to beat."
The Slingers are eager to avenge their lone defeat in the rematch against the Lions, although Neo said: "I don't think I'm going to change anything; we'll just stick to our game plan and hopefully give ourselves a good win to finish before our Christmas break.
"It will be tough for us, but it's good for our local players to play basketball at this level."
Kwek, 20, added: "The Eastern Long Lions have a very good shooting team and they come out very aggressively as well, so we have to be tough both physically and mentally if we want to fight back.
"We'll also have to slow down (Lions guard) Marcus Elliott, because he featured strongly in our last game, so we'll watch video analysis and discuss our game plan."
HONG KONG EASTERN LONG LIONS V SINGAPORE SLINGERS
StarHub Ch112/205 & 76.25MHz, tomorrow, 8pm