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NBA D-League Finals: Iowa Energy Vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers
by Matthew Brennan, NBA D-League.com
Game One: Iowa 123, Rio Grande Valley 106
Game Two: Rio Grande Valley 141, Iowa 122
Game Three: Iowa 119, Rio Grande Valley 111
Iowa Record: 37-13, 1st place, Eastern Conference
Rio Grande Valley Record: 33-17, 2nd place, Western Conference
February 2, at Rio Grande Valley: Iowa 136, Rio Grande Valley 127
Last Meeting: The Energy won 136-127 on February 2 in the fourth straight meeting between the two teams. The Iowa victory ended the season series with two wins for each team. James Johnson, then on assignment from the Bulls, led six Iowa players in double-figures with 31 points and 14 rebounds. Curtis Stinson recorded one of his league-leading triple-doubles with 14 points, ten rebounds, and 15 assists. Terrel Harris led the Vipers with a season-high 27 points off the bench.
Coaching Staff: Nick Nurse won the Dennis Johnson Coach of the Year award on Monday before leading the Energy to their first NBA D-League Finals.
Guards: Veteran point guard Curtis Stinson continued his MVP season in the second round against Tulsa, averaging 20.0 points and 8.5 assists in the two games. Stinson, who was named first-team All NBA D-League for the second straight year, led the league in assists and triple-doubles and is the fulcrum of Iowa's offensive attack. A title is one of the few things still lacking from his NBA D-League resume. Stinson is joined in the backcourt by open tryout player Stefhon Hannah, who moved into a starting role after the call-up of Marqus Blakely. Hannah provided offensive punch in the Tulsa series with 20.0 points per game and will look to continue the momentum against Rio Grande Valley. Veteran NBA D-League players Shy Ely and Kenny Taylor provide depth off the bench. Taylor, who is a former member of the Vipers, is averaging 8.2 points in the playoffs and is shooting 10-21 from three-point range. Ely is averaging 2.8 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Forwards/Centers: The Energy have gotten a spark from the center spot with former reserve Scott VanderMeer moving into a starting role. The 7-0 VanderMeer is averaging 13.6 points and 10.8 rebounds in the postseason, compiling three straight double-doubles heading into Sunday's Game One. Veteran forward Moses Ehambe is shooting for a title after playing for last season's Tulsa team that was swept in the Finals. Ehambe was on a hot-streak from the field towards the end of the regular season, but has struggled in the playoffs so far with 9.4 points on .400 shooting, hitting only .278 from three-point range. Iowa will be that much tougher to beat if he gets back to his regular season form, where he shot .510 from three-point range. Veteran Michael Haynes was a productive part of the rotation during the season, but he's stepped up in the playoffs as the primary offensive threat from the frontcourt. Haynes is averaging 21.2 points and 7.6 rebounds during the postseason. 2010 NBA second-round draft pick Stanley Robinson and rookie Charles Garcia are the reserves. Robinson, the 59th pick in last year's draft, is averaging 7.4 points off the bench in the postseason. Garcia has only appeared in one playoff game so far.
Coaching Staff: Chris Finch is looking to lead the Vipers to the NBA D-League title for the second straight season. He led the Vipers to a 2-0 series win over Tulsa in last year's NBA D-League Finals.
Guards: All-Star guard Jerel McNeal has been the leader of the offensive charge for Rio Grande Valley in the playoffs, averaging 27.0 points over the first five games. McNeal has been held under double-figure scoring only five times in 52 games this season. He is joined in the starting lineup by former Duke star Jon Scheyer. Scheyer is averaging 12.0 points and 4.0 assists in the postseason, but is struggling with his shot with a .364 field-goal percentage. Former Phoenix Sun Matt Janning has also started four games in the playoffs. The 6-4 Janning was hot in the first-round with 15.3 points per game, but cooled off against Reno with only 7.0 points on .333 shooting. Terrel Harris has been the unexpected hero for the Vipers so far. He finished off Reno with 27 points off the bench in Game Two and is averaging 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds for the playoffs. Former Texas Legend Kelvin Lewis has played sparingly in the playoffs so far, appearing in two games for the Vipers.
Forwards/Centers: Rookie Patrick Sullivan has been very efficient for the Vipers in the playoffs, hitting .703 (26-37) of his shot attempts for 12.6 points. Sullivan also leads the Vipers in rebounding in the postseason with 7.4 rebounds. 6-10 Mouhamed Faye has started all five games with 10.6 points and 5.4 rebounds. One of the most prolific three-point shooters in the regular season, Faye is looking to find his groove in the playoffs after hitting just .323 (10-31) from long-range. Richard Roby is another threat in the Viper offensive arsenal. The 6-5 Roby, the all-time leading scorer at Colorado, is averaging 11.4 points in the playoffs, making one start. He is one of three Vipers to appear in all 50 games for Rio Grande Valley during the regular season, joining Harris and Sullivan. Other reserves include Connor Atchley, who has also played for Iowa over parts of the last two seasons, and Syracuse rookie big man Arinze Onuaku. The wild card for the Vipers is Houston Rockets GATORADE Call-Up Marcus Cousin. Cousin was an All-Star with Austin this season, but has seen little playing time with the Vipers before leaving Game One against Reno with a leg injury. Cousin did not play in Game Two and his status for the Finals is still to be determined. If Cousin is ready to play and can recapture his earlier season form, he will make the already deep Vipers very tough to beat.
What To Look For
NBA D-League All-Stars Look To Lead Teams To Title
Two of the NBA D-League's top players from the 2010-11 season are ready to lead their teams to one more series win after starring in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Iowa's Curtis Stinson, who took home the NBA D-League's Most Valuable Player award, enters the Finals averaging 27.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists after the first five games of the playoffs. Stinson, who was more of a distributor earlier in the season, has taken a bigger scoring role later in the season due to other player defections from Iowa. He will be looking to outshine Rio Grande Valley's Jerel McNeal, who enters the series averaging 27.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 7.0 assists in five playoff games. McNeal was one of the top scorers in the NBA D-League this season and will continued to be leaned on as the Vipers' main offensive threat. While Stinson did not earn a GATORADE Call-Up despite his fine season, McNeal did make a trip to the NBA for a ten-day contract with the Hornets in March.
Finch Has Vipers Back In The Finals
The Rio Grande Valley Vipers may be looking to "defend" their 2010 NBA D-League title, but they are back in the Finals again with an entirely new roster. A lot of the credit for the sucess should go to the Vipers' coaching staff, led by head Coach Chris Finch. Finch and assistants Paul Mokeski and Jai Steadman have now compiled a 10-3 record over the playoffs and will try to pick up postseason wins number 11 and 12 for a second NBA D-League title. The Vipers finished with a 33-17 record in the regular season and remianed competive despite losing talented players like McNeal, Mustafa Shakur, and Jeff Adrien to GATORADE Call-Ups over different stretches of the year. Finch is vying to become the first NBA D-League head coach to win back-to-back titles since Joey Meyer accomplished the feat with Asheville in 2005.
Can Iowa's New Stars Stay Hot?
A big factor in the Energy's playoff success has been the emergence of players that played lesser roles during the regular season. GATORADE Call-Ups and other departures have forced previously unheralded players like center Scott VanderMeer and guard Stefhon Hannah to move into the starting lineup. They've responded with big games over the first two rounds to help put Iowa into the Finals. Hannah averaged 20.0 points in two starts during the series against Tulsa, while VanderMeer's 19 points and 18 rebounds in Game Two against the 66ers helped the lead the way to a series-clinching win. These players and others like Moses Ehambe and Michael Haynes will need to be big in one more series for Iowa to win their first NBA D-League title.