Trust The Process: Young Dragons Continue to Mature, Show Encouraging Signs

There is a saying that goes there are always two sides to a story. If you’re a firm believer of this quote, then it will tell you that the Westports Malaysia Dragon’s last two games in the 2016-17 ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) season couldn’t have gotten any more paradoxical.

The Dragons lost back to back affairs to the Singapore Slingers over the weekend, yielding at home 81-76 Friday before blowing a nine-point lead Sunday as they lost a double-overtime battle in a heartbreaking manner, 78-77.

The team slid to 1-3 in the team standings after those consecutive defeats, but looking at the results from another perspective, the Dragons are pretty much on their way to where they want to be as far as maturity and mental toughness are concerned.

“I just told the guys we’re this close,” Dragons head coach Christopher Thomas said, making a gesture where his thumb and index fingers would almost touch.

“I say this all the time: we are the youngest team in the league, we have a group of guys who are not used to situations like that in the end.”

The Dragons both had encouraging signs and manifestations of how the campaign is still a work in progress for them in their Straits Cup series against the Slingers.

They out-rebounded the squad with the most physically-imposing import in Justin Howard in the two games they played, 94-93. The defending champions also led for 56:36 out of a possible 90 basketball minutes. For the young crew, they now know they can hang against the best of the ABL, and it is just a matter of being able to close out games the next time they go up against contenders.

“We have to continue to preach and teach how to close out games out. (Aside from the imports) those guys in that locker room haven’t been used to this situation before where they’ve got be the ones taking the game in their hands and make championship-winning plays, game-winning plays. I thought we fought really hard,” Thomas said.

Particularly in the Sunday duel, the Dragons led for a total of 36:32. They were in control of the game until the final few moments of regulation; however, their lack of end-game composure got in the way – something Thomas believes the team will develop as their young season progresses.

“We just have to execute, we just have to be better down the stretch, but at the same time I have to remind myself that I have a group of guys that have not done this before so video work with these guys is gonna be huge, me teaching everyday like I’m a fifth grade teacher, this is what I have to take as an approach as,” Thomas said.

Wong Wei Long scored five straight points for the Slingers to knot the count. Then Marcus Melvin and Freddie Goldstein both had air-balled attempts from beyond the arc when the Dragons did not have to take triples, causing the game to go to extension.

Malaysia’s execution towards the end of regulation was a stark contrast to how they played for most part of that loss, running the pick and roll game tantamount to perfection with Goldstein supercharging the offense and creating shot opportunities off mismatches and lapses in the Singapore defense.

“We gave about 49 minutes and 15 seconds worth of amazing effort and amazing mental effort. At the end of the first overtime we got exactly what we wanted, we just missed the shot. Even at the end of the second overtime, but we just turned the ball over,” Thomas said.

In the second overtime, the Dragons held a 77-72 lead, but Ma Chee Khuen rushed things by sprinting to the frontcourt when there was no need to do so. He ended up turning the ball over which gave the Slingers a chance to get back. Xavier Alexander eventually scored four of the last six points which handed the Lion City the victory.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to our guys to continue to get better and trusting the path. Look at where we were versus where we are now. We got to trust the process and continue to trust what we are doing good,” Thomas added.

In the series, the Slingers looked like the better team, dishing out more assists, 32-25 while committing eight less turnovers, 30-22.

But in spite of the setbacks, Thomas wants to see his boys carry momentum from the experience in their next matches. At the same time, he wants them to do the things they do good with even more urgency and maturity.

“I felt the effort we had in the last three games was incredible. I really do. We played at a really high level. We just got to piece together full games. I think these last two most especially (against Singapore). We’ve played against the team has the best record in the league three times in our first four games,” the mentor stressed.

“The ceiling is really high for us. We are going to continue to get better and learn and grow and develop. I am really happy with where we are going. We have to continue on the path together.”

Goldstein, who finished with a season-high 30 points in the Sunday leg, also acknowledged that the Dragons need to learn from such situations so that they can eventually turn them into something good. The Dragons may have fallen twice over the weekend, but collective growth was undeniably evident.

“It’s growing pains. We try to work hard each day, push each other, hold everybody accountable for their actions. The three imports, we are basically supposed to be the leaders of the team, but without the young fellas on our team, we are never really going to grow as a team,” Goldstein shared.

“They push us in different ways we never thought just like communication with them, making them play hard every game. To get over this hump, we just have to keep working hard day by day.”

Thomas has also incorporated some of his locals into the regular rotation, buying his World imports Melvin and Skylar Spencer more time off while also developing the younger players by giving them more exposure.

“I really need some of the local guys to step the level of their play up. We just need the collective group effort of those nine guys to really give us something,” Thomas said. “We trust them and that is why we have only three imports on our team. Because we know they can do their jobs.”

One reminder which stood out from a lot of the Dragons’ timeouts or in-between quarter breaks was what Thomas said last Sunday right when his troops were able to force a second overtime.

“We came for this!,” he exclaimed, pointing out to the Dragons being able to push the Slingers to one heck of a toe-to-toe showdown.

While their efforts did not reflect on the win column and while they are currently on the bottom half of the team standings right now, the Dragons also know that they are capable of beating even the best team in the ABL.

More importantly, and just like the one word they shout at the end of each huddle, the Dragons are in the process together.

“We are showing that we can compete in games unlike the first game we had where we were blown out. We are showing teams we’re here now. We’re serious,” Goldstein said. “It’s just a matter of getting over that hump and to be a championship-caliber team.”