Just three weeks ago, the Saigon Heat looked dead in the water. Losers of their first seven games, the expansion Heat were a dispirited bunch. With the team's season going over a cliff, team owners Connor Nguyen and Henry Nguyen made three important changes:-
First, they released Julius Hodge. At the time, the move looked counter-intuitive. A former 1st round NBA pick, Hodge was leading the AirAsia ABL in scoring, thus giving Saigon a veneer of respectability. But Hodge was a black hole who the ball would go into but never emerge. He was scoring over 25 points per game, but took 22 shots to get there. That kind of unbalanced scoring wasn’t doing the Heat any good, as the league quickly figured out that they could let Hodge get his, shut the rest of the Heat down, and walk away with a win. As Hodge wasn’t willing to share the offensive load, he had to go.
The second move was elevating assistant Jason Rabedeaux to the head coaching position. A former NCAA Division 1 coach at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), Rabedeaux also brought international coaching chops to Saigon, having helmed teams in China, Japan and Bahrain. He retooled the Heat offense, getting Saigon to play an inside-out game, dropping the ball inside to 2.13 m centre Jonathan Jones, who then kicked out to Noy Javier and Robert Sanz. Rabedeaux also demanded more accountability on defense.
The result was their first win of the season, 60-55 over the Chang Thailand Slammers. The Heat contained the Slammers #1 option on offense, Deandre Thomas, while also spreading the ball around to get everyone involved in the offense.
With a victory under their belt, the Heat then made their final move, releasing Devon Sullivan and inserting Jahmar Thorpe into the starting lineup. Thorpe gave the Heat both more muscle in the lane and a jump shot that forced an opposing big would to come outside on defense. The University of Houston product made an immediate impact, using an array of inside moves to score 22 points in his ABL debut, as Saigon earned their first road win of the season, beating the slumping Jobstreet Singapore Slingers 72-67.
Back-to-back wins boosted the Heat’s confidence, but questions remained over how the Heat would fare against the league’s best teams. Consider those questions answered, as the Heat won a thriller on Sunday, outlasting the 7-2 Westports Malaysia Dragons 70-69. Down by one with 5.3 seconds left, Thorpe hit 2 clutch free throws to give the Heat the lead. Thorpe then teamed with Jonathan Jones to bottle up deny the Dragon’s Tiras Wade on the game’s final shot. The clock hit zero and Tan Binh Stadium erupted, as the Heat stunningly had themselves a 3-game win streak.
Coupled with weekend losses for the Slingers and Indonesia Warriors, the Saigon Heat are now just one game out of a playoff spot, with half the season still to come. The Heat will find out more about themselves on Wednesday, when the league-leading AirAsia Philippine Patriots come to town. But suddenly, the Heat have a lot going for them. Jones (19 pts, 22 reb on Sunday) is a force in the middle, John Smith has proven very steady at the point guard spot, and Noy Javier is a 3-pt marksman. All that, plus a rabid fan base making Tan Binh Stadium very uncomfortable for visiting teams
And no matter what happens the rest of the way, the Heat ownership must be given credit for making the changes needed to turn their season around.