AFTER a solid build-up in pre-season, Westports Malaysia Dragons have an eye on the big prize as they prepare for the start of the Asean Basketball League next weekend.
Dragons, who have fallen in the semi-final playoffs three times previously, first aim to make the ABL finals this season with two fewer teams to contend with.
But coach Ariel Vanguardia said winning the title would be their ultimate aim after losing the semi-final series 2-1 to San Miguel Beermen last year.
"We really want to make the finals this year after coming close three times before. But finishing in the top two of the regular season would be crucial for us to nab one of two spots in the final.
"With this year's playoffs to be played to best-of-five, home-court advantage will be crucial," said Vanguardia after watching the Dragons beat Singapore Slinger 84-71 in a pre-season friendly at the Maba Stadium in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.
Dragons have brought in two American professionals in Cedric Bozeman, 29, a former Atlanta Hawks guard and Gavin Edwards, 24, a centre who has played in South Korea, Ukraine and Greece.
Filipinos Moala Tautuaa, who played for the Dragons in the National Championship and Mark Jeffries join compatriot Patrick Cabahug as the Dragons' three Asean imports.
Dragons returned from Manila earlier this week after playing three matches there -- beating Cebuana Gems 121-85 before splitting two games against Smart Gilas by winning the second game 89-82 after losing the first 86-80.
Vanguardia said he intends to use K. Satyaseelan more often this season after the former national captain became used to the pace of the ABL in his debut season while also being impressed with Ooi Ban Sin and Kuek Tian Yuan in pre-season.
"Seelan played well in Manila. Last year's was his first season back and I'll probably start him more often. Ban Sin had his best game so far today (yesterday) and Kuek's helped us out a lot," said Vanguardia, in his second season in charge of the Dragons.
"We're defending better now which was a problem for us last season. We were better offensively then but we've still got to improve as I was not happy that we relaxed after holding a big lead. The imports are blending in well though."
The Dragons open their season with three consecutive games away beginning with the Heat in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday and followed by Thailand Slammers in Bangkok on Jan 18 and Indonesia Warriors in Jakarta on Jan 22.
The absence of the Philippine Patriots, the inaugural champions in 2010, and Bangkok Cobras has reduced ABL to a six-team league.
However, teams will now play each other four times in the regular season while playoffs have been extended to a best-of-five games.
MALAYSIA DRAGONS -- Squad: Ooi Ban Sin Ooi, Cedric Bozeman, Gavin Edwards, B. Guganeswaran, Izran Edika Kamaruddin, John Ng Yeo Seng, Kwaan Yoong Jing, Chee Li Wei, Mark Jeffries, Moala Tautuaa, Patrick Cabahug, K. Satyaseelan, Loh Shee Fai, Kuek Tian Yuan.