There is a striking contrast in style and substance between the steady Sabay Salty Crabs and the recharged Phnom Penh Dragons when they get down to the championship fight for the inaugural Cambodia Basketball Challenge at the Beeline Arena tomorrow.
The Dragons have been an enigma of sorts, opening and closing their league campaign with two consecutive losses and making it to the next phase by the tip of their nose.
But in the path to the finals, the Dragons have mowed down every team standing in their way and the playoffs have revealed how well this side has gelled to peak at the right time.
Mark Nabong and Kelvin Chan, who masterminded the Dragons semifinal victory over Raid-Alaxan FR last week, form the two-man timely offence for the Dragons. Yet the Dragons may find this match-up a tough one against the Crabs, who are more steady than spectacular.
Gone are the images of inexperience and imbalance the Dragons presented in their first two games of the season. A mid-season revival and two towering performances in the playoffs have led head coach Michael Dibbern to boldly declare that his side has improved “exponentially”.
“The Dragons have great pride that we made it to the finals for a team that was built from scratch six months ago. [Our success is] thanks to regular practice and great team spirit,” Dibbern told the Post in his pre-final analysis.
“Lack of experience is what I believe is our weakness. The Salty Crabs have a very experienced team that has played together for a long time. We definitely feel that we are the underdogs going into this finals,” added the coach.
“We will have to focus on closing out on their three-point shooters and not allowing any open shots while denying Kim Vengnguon from getting the ball close to the rim.”
In stark contrast to the Dragons march through tough times, the Crabs have been virtually on cruise control. Taking out their heartbreaking two-point loss to Sela Meas in the league, the Crabs have had a trouble-free run.
Admirably led by the playmaking ability of Eav Enghai and the post play of Sean Looney and Kim Vengnguon, the Crabs supporting cast of outside shooters and rebounders have kept the side shipshape.
Yet the Crabs locker room is not without issues. The team is currently facing a crisis of injuries that has shortened its roster.
The most troubling thought, however, is their inability to hold on to big leads. They invariably build up a points advantage but often let it shrink, allowing fourth quarter fight backs by their rivals in many games.
The case in point is the Crabs’ semifinal slip-up and winning recovery against CCPL Heat. The Crabs at one stage led by more than 20 points but were later outscored by Heat, who narrowed the lead to five before surrendering.
The Crabs could well be in similar trouble against the Dragons, whose attacks are more incisive than that of Heat.
“We just relaxed defensively,” Crabs captain Kenneth Kim told the Post, drawing a line to his side’s semifinal win against Heat.
“We just have to grow and learn from it and continue to get better. The Dragon’s have a solid duo in Mark Nabong and Kelvin Chan to go along with a dangerous supporting cast that has improved tremendously over the course of the season.
“We believe that if we can contain their role players, we can live with Chan and Nabong getting their usual points. We will also need to keep Nabong from penetrating freely as he did against Raid-Alaxan.
“We will need to bring our best defensive effort of the season and rebound everything that comes off the rim on Saturday. It’s going to be a much more difficult game than when we beat them during the season,” added Kim, who is also one of the CBC Match Commissioners.
The Crabs had beaten the Dragons 43-33 during their league meeting in the second week of the competition. The full blast of the Dragon power was not so evident then as it is now. That is what makes this final showdown, set for a 4pm tip-off, a lot more special and exciting.
An hour before the title contestants hit the floor, Raid-Alaxan FR and CCPL Heat will be battling for the third place. When these teams met during Week 7, Raid-Alaxan run out easy 48-38 winners.
To contact the reporter on this story: H S Manjunath at firstname.lastname@example.org