First Round Matchup: No. 1 L.A. D-Fenders vs. No. 8 Iowa Energy
The top team in the NBA D-League just wrapped up the best regular season in the 11-year history of the league, as the D-Fenders rattled off a record 38 wins to break Iowa's previous high of 37 from last season. Now, after using the No. 1 overall seed (and, by extension, the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA D-League Playoffs draft), they'll start their quest for the franchise's first-ever title against the eighth-seeded Iowa Energy.
L.A.'s sent five players to the NBA this year. And, as a credit to the kind of talent the D-Fenders have boasted all year, each one of the Call-Ups is still there. Which isn't to say, of course, that the D-Fenders don't still have a starting lineup full of guys who could make the leap this week, if called on. From forward Elijah Millsap (younger brother of Utah Jazz star Paul Millsap) to former NBA fixtures Kareem Rush and Jamario Moon (the latter of whom just grabbed Player of the Month honors for March) to Zach Andrews, a 6-foot-9 mop with elbows, L.A. comes into the postseason as the clear favorite to take the title.
In Iowa, they'll face a team that hasn't been so lucky.
The defending NBA D-League champs blew out to a huge first half, sitting atop the Eastern Conference at the midway point of the season on a strength of a 19-9 record through Feb. 10. They've gone 6-16 since. The Energy haven't won consecutive games since mid-February, were held to fewer than 90 points in five of their last eight games, lost their final three games and only snuck into the Playoffs because their competition for the final spot (the Texas Legends and Rio Grande Valley Vipers) did their losing for them. And maybe the most jarring stat of all is that the reigning champs have just two wins over teams that made the Playoffs in their last 14 tries -- and both wins came against the Canton Charge.
They'll be hard-pressed to keep up with the D-Fenders -- as they were in a 95-79 loss to L.A. on the final day of the regular season. But with the shooters Iowa has, they've got the NBA D-League equivalent of a puncher's chance. Moses Ehambe has one of the league's best jump shots, and parlayed a Playoff run last year into an All-Star appearance this year (where he hit 6-of-11 from 3-point range). Meanwhile, after four previous stints in the NBA D-League, Mike Efevberha has metamorphosed into one of the league's elite playmakers, putting up nearly 20 points a game to go along with 2.2 assists and 4.5.
For Iowa to pull off the upset, both will have to pull the defense out to the perimeter and open up Ben Strong -- who, at 6-foot-11, has at least two inches on all of his D-Fenders...well, defenders -- and Andrew Drevo on the inside against an undersized LA front court.
- Will the Trend Continue? Nobody's had more Call-Ups this year than the D-Fenders, who've had five players leave L.A. a total of seven times (Fortson and Thomas earned multiple trips up to the Show). Meanwhile, among the guys still there, the trio of MIllsap, Andrews and Moon are all in our Top 15 Prospects. Eric Musselman's made a career of delivering prospects to the NBA that aren't just worthy of a look -- they're worthy of a rotation spot. Each member of the trio, if not the whole bunch, could fill a hole in an NBA roster between now and the start of NBA Playoffs.
- Little Bro Going Big: Elijah Millsap opened the year on a rampage. No player in the first quarter of the season featured as diverse -- and consistent -- a skill set, with Paul's younger brother lighting up the scoreboard and grabbing rebounds in bunches. But when Gerald Green joined the D-Fenders and took over the scoring load, Millsap faded a bit. Then, immediately after Green signed with the Nets, Millsap got back to pure dominance, posting double-figures in scoring in 14 straight games since the All-Star break, along with a triple-double and a 16-rebound night. He's in the running for league MVP, and if he keeps playing like this through the postseason, this could be the last we see of him in the NBA D-League.
- Stinson, Among Others: When 2011 league MVP Curtis Stinson re-joined the Energy in January -- after starting the season late due to injury -- it took him a little bit of time to get back to the form that saw him drive the Energy to the title last year. But he got there. And after about a week, he suffered a back injury that knocked him out of competition again. He hasn't been on the Iowa roster since being waived in late March, but if Stinson can get healthy, he could shake up the series. Otherwise, look for the Energy -- who picked up a number of players last year just before and during the run -- to move the roster around a little bit to help their chances.
|1. Jamario Moon, F||1. Moses Ehambe, G|
|2. Elijah Millsap, F||2. Mike Efevberha, G|
|3. Zach Andrews, F||3. Paul Harris, F|
|4. Brandon Costner, F||4. Andrew Drevo|
|5. Orien Green, G||5. Ben Strong, C|
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