The blooming season many predicted for the Saigon Heat this year in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) is turning out to be relatively disappointing.
After a 91-90 defeat at the hands of the BTN CLS Knights, the Vietnamese squad has now gone 1-4 in its last five games (the lone win was against a Mike Bell-less Wolf Warriors team at home) and dropped to sixth in the standings, replacing their counterparts from Indonesia who have moved up to fourth.
The final buzzer sounded in Surabaya and no one in a Saigon Heat jersey could be happy about it, nor should they. The team had blown an 11-point lead with just over two minutes left, thanks in part to a game-winning layup from the Knights’ Douglas Herring, and to a Heat defense that left the greatest three-point shooter in league history, Wong Wei Long, wide open to make not one, but two clutch outside shots.
The Heat have lost their final three road games against lower-seeded teams, all of whom they were expected to beat. The team has also struggled on previous road trips, with only four victories (only one against a team which was ranked higher) in 13 games.
The Saigon Heat’s problem over the previous six seasons in the ABL has been quite consistent, and thus, the recurring question once again arises: is the bench deep enough?
More than one occasion in the past have we seen the Ho Chi Minh City-based club bring only six players to a game, and with the new league rules pertaining to local player eligibility this season, the problem was seemingly given a solution.
Six Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) standouts were added at the beginning of the season, including Justin Young, Corey Cillia, Chris Dierker, Khoa Tran, Sang Ding and Henry Nguyen to go along with three world imports. The roster injected Saigon’s great fan base with escalated excitement and anticipation for the team’s potential to not only grab its first playoff win, but also to make noise in the postseason.
The funny thing is, Saigon actually had a historic season last year, when it reached 10 regular season wins (most in franchise history) to avoid a losing record for the first time ever, and this season, they are on the verge of being unable to match that same success.
One can make the argument that the league has reached a level where even this “best ever” squad is not enough, but others can also say luck was not something the Saigon Heat had in their bag this year. The constant injuries certainly did not help.
After a promising 3-0 start, star point guard Trevon Hughes went down for five games with a leg injury and has yet to return to full strength. He was followed by Justin Young’s 12 game absence (ankle), a couple games for Kyle Barone (nose) and Sang Dinh’s season-ending injury (broken wrist). There were also several other minor in-game injuries that completely shaped the outcomes of games, severing any sort of momentum for a season.
The team had to bring in reigning VBA Most Valuable Player DeAngelo Hamilton to be a back-up import, eventually having him taking over Murphy Burnatowski’s place on a permanent basis. They then added Stefan Nguyen to replace Sang Dinh.
While these moves were arguably made in the best interest of Saigon, team chemistry is another challenge it would have to overcome. It is no coincidence that the only three clubs that have not made a roster change are leading the league.
The Heat (12-12) will now have to win both of its remaining games if it is to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and to have a winning regular season record (finished 10-10 last season) for the very first time.
The good news is that they will have the opportunity to do so in front of one of the most supportive fan-bases in the league at their home ground, CIS Arena, where they are currently 8-3.
And the bad news? They will be facing two of the aforementioned three leading teams in the ABL, both of whom they have yet to beat in the Kyle Julius era: the Singapore Slingers and San Miguel Alab Pilipinas.
The former will take place on March 17, while the latter game will tip off one week later.
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