by Matthew Brennan, NBA D-League.com
Game One: Bakersfield 110, Rio Grande Valley 105
Game Two: at Rio Grande Valley, Tuesday 4/12, 8 p.m. ET (NBA Futurecast)
Game Three: at Rio Grande Valley, Wednesday 4/13, 8 p.m. ET (NBA Futurecast, if necessary)
Rio Grande Valley Record: 33-17, 2nd place, Western Conference
Bakersfield Record: 29-21, 4th place, Western Conference
Season Series: 2-2
March 5, at Bakersfield: Rio Grande Valley 126, Bakersfield 111
March 4, at Bakersfield: Bakersfield 104, Rio Grande Valley 99
December 18, at Rio Grande Valley: Bakersfield 99, Rio Grande Valley 93
December 17, at Rio Grande Valley: Rio Grande Valley 111, Bakersfield 99
Last Meeting: The Vipers easily defeated Bakersfield to finish the season series at two games each on March 5. GATORADE Call-Up Jerel McNeal led the way with 31 points, while Terrel Harris and Mouhamed Faye each added 20 for the Vipers. Rio Grande Valley was red-hot from three-point range, hitting 13-30 from beyond the arc. GATORADE Call-up Trey Johnson scored 26 in the loss for the Jam.
Rio Grande Valley Vipers
Coaching Staff: Chris Finch is looking to lead the Vipers to his second straight NBA D-League title. The Vipers won it all in 2009-10 to cap off Finch's debut season as the head coach in Rio Grande Valley.
Guards: The main attraction at the guard spot for Rio Grande Valley is former Marquette star Jerel McNeal, who came to the team after playing in training camp for the Rockets. McNeal earned a GATORADE Call-Up to New Orleans and finished the year ranked sixth in the league with 19.4 points per game. He is joined in the starting lineup by Jon Scheyer, who is looking to end another season with a title after winning an NCAA crown last year at Duke. An excellent outside shooter, Scheyer is averaging 13.8 points and 4.1 assists since joining the team in February. 6-5 Richard Roby gives the team another scoring threat to offset McNeal, averaging 15.5 points while playing in all 50 games for the Vipers, while Matt Janning started the year in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns and has come off the bench to aveage 10.0 points in the NBA D-League. Terrel Harris, the lone holdover from last year's championship team, and newcomer Kelvin Lewis round out the backcourt.
Forwards/Centers: A big name is currently on assignment in the form of 2009 number two overall pick Hasheem Thabeet. The 7-2 Thabeet has had short stint in Rio Grande Valley, averaging 10.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks over six games. 6-10 Mouhamed Faye has had his moments this season, averaging 10.3 points and 5.7 rebounds while starting 40 games for Rio Grande Valley, while rookie Patrick Sullivan averaged 9.4 points and 5.0 rebounds and saw action in all 50 games. Connor Atchley, in his second NBA D-League season, joined the team via trade in January and is the primary big man to come off the bench. Atchley is 6-10 but a skilled three-point shooter, connecting on .417 (35-84) of his attempts with the Vipers. Former Syracuse standout Arinze Onuaku joined the team in early March but has not appeared since Thabeet's assignment.
Coaching Staff: Will Voigt has led the Jam into the playoffs in his second season as the head coach. The Jam are looking for their first playoff victory in team history after losing in the first round in 2008-09.
Guards: The heart and soul of the Jam is veteran Trey Johnson. Johnson, who earned his second career GATORADE Call-Up this season when he signed a ten-day with the Raptors, ran away with the NBA D-League scoring title with 25.5 points per game, 3.0 points more than his closest competitor. A very consistent and efficient scorer, Johnson shot .499 from the field this year and was held to under double-digit scoring only once in 39 games. He is joined in the backcourt by another Jam veteran, Jeremy Wise. The lightning-quick Wise averaged 14.4 points and a team-high 5.0 assists in his second season in Bakersfield. The Jam also have a very talented guard coming off the bench in the form of assigned Clippers rookie Willie Warren. Warren has played in 15 games for the Jam and has been an explosive scorer with 19.2 points per game. Athletic rookie Stephen Dennis averaged 10.0 points in 48 games for the Jam, while D'Andre Bell is the team's best three-point shooter, connecting on .426 (20-47) during the season.
Forwards/Centers: The small forward spot sees anothe proficient veteran scorer in Derrick Byars. A former NBA D-League All-Star, Byars returned to the Jam after a year's absence and scored 17.5 points in 30 games. He's also a prolific long-range shooter, knocking down 2.1 three per game, which ranked ninth in the league. NBA veteran Brandon Wallace and center Drew Naymick add rebounding and defense to the lineup. Naymick, a Michigan State product who was in camp with the Lakers prior to the season, led the team with 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Wallace added 9.8 points, 6.8 boards, and 1.5 blocks. 6-11 Luke Zeller, who started 36 games, and reserves Tiny Gallon and Chukwudiebere Maduabum add even more size and depth to the Jam roster.
What To Look For
The Vipers and the Jam are two of the highest-scoring teams in the league, with the the Vipers ranking second with 109.5 points per game while the Jam are fourth with 108.4 points per contest. They also rank first and second in three-pointers made, so expect plenty of long-range shots to be going up starting with Game One in Bakersfield, Friday on VERSUS. Despite the presence of better-known gunners like Jon Scheyer and Derrick Byars, the most prolific shooters for each team are actually big men. 6-10 Mouhamed Faye knocked down 83 this season for the Vipers, while Luke Zeller hit 79 for the Jam. Obviously with team relying on the three-ball for a lot of their offense, whoever can gain the hot hand will be likely to advance in a very even first-round matchup.
Will Thabeet Make An Impact?
The Vipers are a very talented team, but they will need a big series from Hasheem Thabeet to offset the Jam big men who can crash the boards and create chances for their talented scorers. Thabeet has been inconsistent early in his Vipers' tenure, posting two double-doubles in six games but being held to two points in two of his appearances. Thabeet will have his hands full in the paint with Drew Naymick, who ended the regular season with six straight double-doubles. If Thabeet is ineffective or gets in foul trouble, then Naymick and Brandon Wallace should help Bakersfield dominate the glass. No player on the Vipers' roste other than Thabeet is currently averging more than 6.0 boards per game.
Can The Jam Win Away From Home?
The Jam are one of only three teams in the playoffs with a losing road record after going 12-13 away from Bakersfield during the regular season. They'll have to put the road woes behind them to advance with at least one win in Rio Grande Valley required for a series win. Despite their medicore record away from home, the Jam can enter with some confidence after defeating the Vipers in Rio Grande Valley back on December 18. The Vipers are 16-9 on the road and also have a road win against the Jam on their resume.