Austin, Dawson Reach New Heights

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There were a lot of smiling faces in the Austin Toros’ locker room on Saturday.

For the third straight series, Austin had rallied back from a Game 1 loss to win the next two and claim the series. The first two times came against lower-seeded opponents. The third, against the team with the most wins in NBA D-League history.

So, as the champagne sprayed and the Toros celebrated their upset win over L.A. D-Fenders to win the 2011-12 NBA D-League Championship, the smiles were everywhere.

None, however, were bigger than the one grin belonging to Eric Dawson.

Dawson, the 2011-12 NBA D-League Impact Player of the Year, played only 35 seconds of Game 1 when he suffered a concussion after taking an inadvertent elbow and hit the ground hard. He missed all of Game 2 and was originally thought to be out for the rest of the series.

“I couldn’t go out like that,” Dawson said.

Dawson went through tests and even a workout session with the San Antonio Spurs medical doctors before being cleared and taking a flight to L.A. on Friday night.

“Just going in there making sure I didn’t have any headaches, dizziness, balance issues, memory problems,” Dawson said of the purpose of tests he went through. “I went in and they passed me. They told me if we won Game 2, they would fly me out so I could play. So, I’m just grateful the guys won and let me be a part of this.”

Dawson did more than his part. In 29 minutes, he scored 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting and grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds. After getting woefully outrebounded in the first two games, the Toros, with Dawson’s 6-foot-9, 250 pound frame clogging the middle, actually outrebounded the D-Fenders, 40-36.

One person that was happy – and equally surprised – that Dawson suited up was Austin Head Coach Brad Jones.

“They called us out of the blue,” said Jones of the Spurs training staff. “We did not expect him to play. Totally did not expect him to play.”

It wasn’t exactly Willis Reed coming out to play in the 1970 NBA Finals versus – you guessed it – the Los Angeles Lakers, but it gave the Toros a boost from the start.

“We found out (Dawson would play) after the D-Fenders game, Game 2,” Dentmon said. “We were all like ‘yes, this is going to help us in rebounding and also down low in scoring.’”

Dawson’s presence not only negated L.A.’s advantage in the paint, but it also took some pressure of guys like forward Julian Wright, who’d carried Austin’s interior attack for two games.

“It was comforting,” Wright said of his Dawson’s presence. “We knew he wanted this bad. He didn’t impact the series at all until Game 3. We knew that we just wanted to give him looks and keep the defense on their heels. He was our go-to guy all year and it made sense for him to really make in an impact in the championship game.”

Wright finished with 19 points and 8 rebounds. Dentmon, the league MVP, had his best game of the Finals, scoring a team-high 30 points, including 11 points in the game’s first eight minutes.

The Toros are a team full of players that have been through a lot to get to where they are – like Wright – and of players that are having their best basketball season yet – like Dentmon. Dawson fits both of those categories.

Dawson has played parts of five seasons in the NBA D-League, all with Austin. He has bounced around with some international teams, and 2011-12 marked only the second full season he spent with the Toros. It was by far his best.

“He’s been just phenomenal all year long for us,” Jones said. “He’s had some ups and down himself, but I don’t know if you can have much better of a season than he had. We had a lot of guys in that category too, but to come in and emerge as one of the best bigs in this league when he’s been in this league on and off for five years, and he got his Call-Up for his hometown San Antonio Spurs, and to win a championship for us.”

For the season, Dawson averaged 17.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per night. In 2009-10, his other full NBA D-League season, he only averaged 9.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.5 blocks a game.

How did he improve so much?

“Dedication, hard work and being coachable,” Dawson said. “That’s basically it. And having faith.”

He’s far from an overnight success, but Dawson has now played himself into being a legitimate NBA Prospect. He saw minutes in four NBA games with San Antonio this year, and the one game where he got significant minutes -- Feb. 21 against Portland -- Dawson scored nine points on 4-for-8 shooting and pulled down six rebounds.

“With Eric he’s been called and up and has been able to see what it’s like,” Wright, a veteran of four NBA season said. “He had a taste of it and once you get a taste of it you want to continue to work hard and keep it in the back of your head.”

For now though, Dawson will have to settle for being the perfect microcosm of the Toros season. He developed and played the best basketball of his career – as guys like Dentmon and Brad Wanamaker did – he’s earned a few Call-Up – like four other Toros – and all the while he’s bought into a team philosophy that produced undeniable results and Austin’s first-ever NBA D-League Championship.

As Dawson and the Toros exited the Toyota Sports Center, cracking jokes while their Championship T-shirts and hats were covered in champagne, there was a measure of relief in his voice.

“This was a great year,” Dawson said. “All the hard work paid off.”