NBA D-League Finals: No. 1 L.A. D-Fenders vs. No. 3 Austin Toros
It seemed, in many ways, like fate.
Then the Austin Toros blew the first game of their Playoffs series. Twice.
But after the third-seeded Toros – who, at 33-17, had reeled off the league’s second-best regular-season record in 2011-12 – came back to win consecutive games in the first round and semis (thanks, at one point, to a little deus ex Dentmon), they earned the distinct privilege of taking on the team with the best record ever for a chance to claim the 2012 NBA D-League crown.
So when the Toros and top-seeded L.A. D-Fenders tip off the NBA D-League Finals presented by BBVA on Tuesday at Cedar Park Arena (8:30 p.m. ET), each team’s out to complete, respectively, what rightly could be considered the finest season in the 11-year history of the NBA D-League.
Let’s start with the wins.
The D-Fenders broke the all-time regular season mark with 38 wins this year, thanks to a steady flood of Top Prospects that made sure that L.A.’s three-game losing streak from Jan. 21-28 would finish as the low point of the season. Through 50 games, the D-Fenders lost consecutive games only one other time, when they dropped two in a row to the Texas Legends on Dec. 21 and 23.
They did, however, have win streaks of eight games, seven games (twice) and 10 games – the last of which is probably better described as a winning month, with L.A. dropping Canton on Jan. 30 and then not losing again until March. Meanwhile, they’re currently working on boosting that eight-game run, with a perfect 4-0 record in these Playoffs.
For its part, Austin exploded out to the best start in league history, with the Toros going 18-4 through their first 22 games. After tiptoeing out of the gate at 2-2, Austin lost only twice over its next 18 games, rolling into a Jan. 27 meeting with Iowa as the class of the NBA D-League.
Then, over the course of the next six weeks, the league caught up.
The Toros went 5-12 over their next 17, a skid pretty cleanly traced to forward Impact Player of the Year Eric Dawson’s departure (on Feb. 18) from the team in order to explore (then turn down) the frosty option of playing ball in Slovenia, and a skid hastened by Lance Thomas’ second Call-Up (and, later, full-year contract). All the while, by his own admission, eventual league MVP Justin Dentmon had lost some of the spark that had ignited the record-setting run out of the gates, as he tried to up his Prospect status by reining in the style that’d put him on the radar to begin win.
Of Austin’s five wins in that stretch, only one (a win over Canton on Feb. 4) came against a team that would make the Playoffs.
But then, as quickly as things fell downhill, the Toros shot back the other way. From Mar. 14 through April 4, the Toros didn’t lose, winning nine straight to vault back near the top of the West, behind the D-Fenders by six games but four games ahead of anybody else.
And this all happened while the teams combined to send 11 players to the NBA, a total of 17 times. Of the record-breaking 58 total GATORADE Call-Ups in the 2011-12 NBA D-League season – spread across 16 teams – 29 percent of them came from LA and Austin.
And that stat, more than any others, measures a franchise’s worth in the NBA D-League, said L.A. D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman.
“All of us want to win the game that’s going on inside the 48 minutes, but 10 years from now, the things our coaching staff and organization are going to be most proud of are that we’ve helped people’s careers,” Musselman said before the D-Fenders beat the Bakersfield Jam in successive games in the semis.
But even with seven players up in the NBA (five for LA, two for Austin), the teams still come into the Finals with lineups saturated with talent. And from the outset – and despite the presence of Justin Dentmon on the Austin side – the D-Fenders look to have the edge.
Swingman Elijah Millsap leads the D-Fenders’ core of players teetering on the border between the NBA and NBA D-League, spending their time waiting for a phone call by marauding around the minors. The NBA Development League doesn’t have many players – if any at all – who can keep up with Millsap when he’s at his best, which includes a 34-point, seven-rebound, five-assist and four-steal night in Game 1 of the semis, not to mention two of the league’s 10 triple-doubles this year.
At 19.4 points per game during the regular season (to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists), he helped lead a D-Fenders attack that never had much trouble finding the hoop. Among players who played at least 20 games with L.A. this year, only forward Brandon Costner scored more per game, at 20.4 ppg – and Costner’s taken a bit of a back seat down the stretch, as the D-Fenders’ Prospect spigot’s kept on pouring.
Meanwhile, a collection of budding Prospects and NBA vets have taken over. In four Playoff games, forward Malcolm Thomas – he of the two Call-Ups and, by virtue of two Assignments, three D-League teams (including the Toros, when he was on assignment from the Spurs) – has owned the lane, scoring 17.8 points with nine rebounds a game. With the help of fellow Top Prospect Zach Andrews and Otis George on the inside, the D-Fenders have more than made up for a shortage of height that often has them three to four inches shorter than their opponents’ tallest player.
On the outside, experience has won out. After three D-Fenders point guards (Jamaal Tinsley, Courtney Fortson and Ish Smith) went to the NBA and stayed up there, former NBA players Mardy Collins (15.5 ppg, 5.5 apg) and Orien Greene (15 ppg, 6.5 apg, 5.0 rpg) have kept the ball moving and their Prospect statuses improving.
But, even at 6-6 and 6-5, respectively, they’ll have trouble keeping up with Dentmon, who followed up a strong showing in his rookie campaign in 2011-12 by exploding in 2011-12.
The MVP scored 22.8 points with 5.5 assists game during the regular season, which meant that more than 31 percent of the Toros’ 107 points per game came from their resident catalyst. In a season that saw him earn the first two GATORADE Call-Ups of his career, Dentmon made the leap from Adapted 2-guard (where he’d played most his life) to full-fledged point guard. His playmaking does come at a cost, though -- Dentmon turned the ball over 3.88 times a game during the regular season -- so watch for Eric Musselman to use Green and Collins’ size to force Dentmon into traps. However, NBA D-League players tend to go on rampages after they come back from the NBA, with knowledge of The Big Time in tow, so if anyone can steal this series, Dentmon can.
He’ll have help, however.
Austin’s late-season acquisition of former NBA guard Flip Murray gave the Toros a steady force on the perimeter, with Murray putting up 16.3 points and 3.8 assists through six Playoff games. Toss in former Hornets point guard and defensive wasp Carldell Johnson and Cory Joseph, the Spurs assignee and University of Texas grad who’s built like a guard but plays like a swing (11.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.3 apg this postseason), and the Toros’ backcourt shapes up well against L.A.’s perimeter team.
Which means this one should come down, like every big fight, to the heavyweights.
Austin’s one of the few teams that can come close to matching the D-Fenders’ athleticism on the inside. The Toros just don’t have the depth. In a season that’s seen him earn two GATORADE Call-Ups, Eric Dawson’s evolved into the one of the league’s best rebounders and all-around big men. Good for a double-double virtually every night, he’s put up 14.8 points with 10.2 rebounds in the postseason.
Meanwhile, Julian Wright is peaking at the perfect time. The four-year NBA veteran added more minutes and production as his 16-game regular season went on, finishing with 17 points or more in seven of his last nine games, but he’s erupted in the postseason. The Toros’ leading scorer, at 19.3 ppg in the Playoffs, he’s also grabbed 7.7 rebounds per game. He’s been hurt by foul trouble a few times, but has also blocked a shot and a half per game in the Playoffs.
Beyond the two forwards, the Toros will need a few big performances from Luke Zeller, their 6-foot-11 center who’ll give them a height advantage over a shorter D-Fenders team.
The series, which opens up on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET in Austin, will finish in L.A. for Games 2 and 3. Game 2 tips on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET, with Game 3 going off on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET, if necessary. Watch all three games live on Futurecast, or check them out on tape-delay on NBA TV!
- Deadline Deals:The NBA can still call up players until the end of the regular season. Look for young players like Thomas, Dawson or Andrews to sign a late contract as Playoff teams look to fortify their middles, or for NBA veterans like Murray, Greene and Collins to go up as a way of injecting some veteran savvy into a younger lineup heading into the postseason.
- Home Cookin: Austin’s yet to lose at home this postseason, with a 4-0 mark at Cedar Park Arena. But the Toros also haven’t won yet on the road. Against an LA team that hasn’t lost at all, they’ll need to find a way to pick one up in the City of Angels (well, El Segundo) – where L.A. tied the league record for most regular-season home wins – to get the title.
- Year of the Dragons: Three players in the series went to school at Alabama-Birmingham, with Austin’s Squeaky Johnson and Jamarr Sanders, along with LA’s Elijah Millsap, having played at UAB. Johnson finished up first, but Sanders and Millsap played together with the Dragons after Millsap came over from Louisiana-Lafayette (alma mater of D-Fenders guard Orien Greene).
|1. Malcolm Thomas, F||1. Justin Dentmon, G|
|2. Elijah Millsap, G||2. Eric Dawson, F|
|3. Orien Greene, G||3. Flip Murray, G|
|4. Zach Andrews, F||4. Julian Wright, F|
|5. Mardy Collins, G||5. Carldell Johnson, G|
|Read The Prospect Watch or check out our Finals Top Prospects gallery for more!|
|Christian Eyenga, F||Cory Joseph, G|
|PG Jamaal Tinsley||F Lance Thomas (twice)|
|F Malcolm Thomas (twice)||G Carldell Johnson|
|PG Courtney Fortson (twice)||F Eric Dawson (twice)|
|G Ish Smith||G Justin Dentmon (twice)|
|G Gerald Green||Lester Hudson (twice)|
|F Jamario Moon|
|See the full list of GATORADE Call-Ups here or check out our 2011-12 Call-Ups photo gallery!|