L.A. Loses Battles of the Little, Gets Beat Big

In pursuit of a title, the league's top team loses track of what got it there.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – After a year of very big things for the Los Angeles D-Fenders – an NBA D-League record for regular season wins, nine GATORADE Call-Ups, cameos in the crowd from Blake Griffin himself – Thursday’s loss to the Austin Toros in Game 2 of the NBA D-League Finals came down to things very small.

It came down to extra steps – as in, the the ones the D-Fenders defenders didn’t take, en route to 32 fouls. It came down to free throws – the 11 more the Toros took and 18 more they made than L.A. And it came down to the little pockets of energy that never quite made it to the Toyota Sports Center on Thursday.

“It was like we were running in quicksand,” said D-Fenders guard Mardy Collins. “We couldn’t catch the ball. We couldn’t make layups.”

The Toros didn’t out-shoot the D-Fenders. Both teams shot just over 42 percent, and only because they both caught fire in the fourth quarter to even cross 40 percent for the game. They didn’t out-rebound them, either. Once again, L.A. took the edge, this time by a total of 47-35. Austin forced more turnovers (24 to 17), but only surged ahead in that category when the game was out of reach.

Instead, Austin’s win was more of an incremental thing. A conspiracy of the inconspicuous. A first step here. A free throw there, and, voila, you’re up 20. And with a collection of fundamentals done flawlessly – the point of the NBA D-League, after all – against a team that didn’t have much use for them in Game 2, the Toros demolished the D-Fenders in front of their home crowd.

“This was definitely a game of little things,” said D-Fenders forward Malcolm Thomas, who finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. “They beat us to 50-50 balls. They played way harder.”

So, fittingly, when D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman shared his thoughts after the game, he kept it simple.

“We were terrible tonight,” he said. “We lacked energy tonight, we lacked enthusiasm and Austin took it to us.”

L.A. hadn’t even lost by that many points in the D-Fenders’ last three losses combined. Until Thursday, none of the D-Fenders’ 18 losses has been by double-digit points, save the time they fell to the Texas Legends, 108-91, when L.A. had most of its team up at NBA training camps and a militia of replacements in the lineup.

It happened from the start. In front of a Toyota Sports Center crowd that hadn’t seen the D-Fenders lose since Jan. 28, Austin stormed out to a 17-8 lead, largely by blowing past lackadaisical D-Fender defenders. Even against an L.A. defense that knew the Toros were going to go with a small lineup – mainly because they didn’t have many large people actually left on the roster, after Eric Dawson went down – the Toros guards needed just one step and they were off, hurtling uncontested toward the lane.

Then, when the D-Fender big men would step in to help, Toro guards Justin Dentmon (the league MVP), Flip Murray (the former NBA point guard) and Brad Wanamaker (the guy who thrust himself onto a lot of Prospect charts with his performance) would calmly slip the ball into Julian Wright in the post or a guard waiting on the wing.

On the other end, things weren’t much better. Lofted passes into Malcolm Thomas in the post became transition buckets for the Toros. Skip passes missed their target, but, on the bright side, hit Austin defenders perfectly in stride.

“We were terrible turning the ball over,” Musselman said. “You can’t turn the ball over in the championship game 24 times and shoot 57 percent from the foul line. We’ve been a terrible free throw shooting team all year and it showed tonight.”

But in a sort of oblique way, Thursday just underscored just how dominant the D-Fenders had been all year long. They’d won so frequently that it just seemed like a given. They made the rest of the NBA D-League look like the Washington Generals and made it feel like trailing in three straight Playoff games before Thursday – by eight, 10 and 23 points – was just a way to keep the crowd interested.

“I think we got a little bit too comfortable, and expected the changes to be made at the half, and we just didn’t make the changes quick enough,” said forward Zach Andrews.

“It’s been our trend the last three, four games, coming out slow,” said D-Fenders guard Mardy Collins. “Tonight it finally caught up with us.”

Down the stretch, the only reason the D-Fenders had to win games was to make a little history. They could afford to lose a few games. They just didn’t, winning every single game but two over the final three months of the season and winning the West by five games over the Toros –– the team with the second-best record in the league.

Now, all of a sudden, they have to win to stave off elimination. But if the 2011-12 season has revealed just how much talent one NBA D-League team can amass, the feeling in the locker room after the loss revealed just how close a collection of players out to use the team as a springboard into the NBA has become.

“Two months ago if we’d have lost like this, we’d have been in there arguing with each other,” Collins said. “It might’ve got a little physical, but now we’re so close, and we know what we have to do.”

And they are close. As close as the Toros are, at least, but with the crowd on their side. But to bring home a win on Saturday, they’ll need to reveal something that matters a whole lot, too, in the Prospect search: heart.

“They motivated us,” Collins said. “A lot of them did a lot of talking while they were up, so that motivated us to make sure we come back Saturday and come back with some energy.”

“I feel sorry for Austin, because just come Saturday …the gloves are coming off,” said Zach Andrews. “I just hope they bring their bag lunch with them.”