Fight to the Finish: Energy, Vipers, Skyforce Vie for Central Division Title
It's the final day of the NBA D-League regular season, and the Central Division champion has yet to be crowned. Three teams are currently tied in the standings, with each taking the court on Saturday night with crucial playoff seeding on the line. Who's got the upper hand? Here's how the contenders look heading into the playoffs, which begin on Wednesday*:
4/5 - vs. Los Angeles D-Fenders
Seven-year NBA D-League vet -- including the last five-plus seasons with Iowa -- Curtis Stinson is averaging 16.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists from the point guard spot over his last five games. Sixth man Austin Freeman has brought a spark off the bench, pouring in 14.9 points on 60% shooting in just 20.7 minutes per game over his last seven.
THE CASE FOR:
In Stinson, Othyus Jeffers (a strong MVP candidate) and Moses Ehambe (the league's all-time leader in three-pointers made), the Energy have a core Big Three with 17 combined seasons of NBA D-League experience and dozens of games played together. That's rare in this league and brings intangible value that can't be measured. They also have Glen Rice Jr. on assignment from the Wizards, and he knows a thing or two himself about April's stretch run.
4/5 - vs. Austin Toros
Quite frankly, the Vipers are ice cold. They've lost six straight games, shooting just 14-of-52 (yes, 52) from three-point range on average over that stretch while allowing 137.3 (yes, 137.3) points per game. On the bright side, Rockets rookie Robert Covington has been all over the place, averaging 19.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game during the losing streak.
THE CASE FOR:
The law of averages is the Vipers' best friend. Just as quickly as they can go cold, they can catch fire and storm past any team in the league. RGV has struggled to weave newcomers Darius Morris, Bo Spencer and Jamelle Hagins into the mix, but it's still stacked with shooters at every position. Once his services are no longer needed in Houston, point guard Isaiah Canaan also looms as a trump card in the organization's back pocket.
4/5 - vs. Tulsa 66ers
Pretty much the whole lineup, from combo guard Tre Kelley (20.3 points, 58% FG, 6.7 assists over his last six) to wing Henry Walker (19.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.4 threes per game since the All-Star break) to the frontcourt duo of Justin Hamilton and newly acquired NBA vet Craig Smith.
THE CASE FOR:
In a league filled with running-and-gunning teams, the Skyforce look like the 2000s Pistons. They're the league's best defensive team -- the only one allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions -- and they have a well-balanced lineup that can attack from all angles: Kelley and Larry Drew playmaking, Walker and DeAndre Liggins providing athleticism on the wings, and Smith and Hamilton unmatched down low. Yet they can also space the floor and launch just like their division rivals. That versatility allows them to match up with anyone.
*Stats through Wednesday, 4/2.