NBA D-League Semifinals: No. 1 L.A. D-Fenders vs. No. 6 Bakersfield Jam
As far as L.A. D-Fenders Head Coach Eric Musselman’s concerned, his team picked up two wins on Sunday.
For one, they earned a spot in the NBA D-League Semifinals – a result with all the surprise of a Russian election – by winning the game itself: a 94-92 win over defending NBA Development League champion Iowa. In that one, the D-Fenders got 50 points from the bench and held off a late, one-man surge from reigning Finals MVP Curtis Stinson (22 points) to take down the Energy in the final seconds.
But all this came after a result that mattered a whole lot more to the Musselman.
Earlier in the day, D-Fenders forward Jamario Moon had flown to Charlotte to join the Bobcats, counting as the 52nd GATORADE Call-Up of the 2011-12 season and the league-high eighth to come from L.A.
“Ten years from now, the thing our coaching staff and organization are going to be proud about is that we’ve helped people’s careers – that’s what the D-League’s all about,” Musselman said. “That’s what gets lost sometimes. It was difficult losing Jamario. He was having a great time and we were having a great time coaching him, but he came here for a purpose, and it was to get called up.”
No team’s sent as many different players (six) to the NBA this year as L.A. has. No one’s even come close. Sure, Erie’s had a total of nine Call-Ups (to L.A.’s eight), but four of those belong to Mike James, who’s slid neatly into the role of Derrick Rose Insurance Policy, and three more belong to Donald Sloan. Yet through all the losses, L.A.’s kept winning. The D-Fenders have now won six in a row. And 13 of 14, 23 of 25 and a league-record 34 of 52.
But without Moon – the NBA D-League Performer of the Month for March and source of 18 points and eight boards a game – and against a Bakersfield Jam team that’s had months to get used to playing together, the D-Fenders face a test in the semifinals when they tip off Thursday.
“Jamario’s Call-Up is a tough one to overcome, especially in the flow of the playoffs, but it’s something our guys are extremely used to,” Musselman said. “There was no sense whatsoever that after he got called up that we weren’t gonna win the Iowa series. There was zero lack of confidence.”
“The thing is, our team’s responded every time we’ve had a Call-Up, and our players recognize that if they want to succeed at the next level, they’ve got to give extra effort,” he said. “There are teams that haven’t had a Call-Up, so to have 8 and keep winning at the pace we’ve won, it’s a statement that every time a door opens up for one of guys in the NBA, it’s opened up another opportunity at the D-League for our guys, and somebody’s always stepped up for us.”
In the first round, it was L.A.’s Malcolm Thomas who did that the most. The forward – and recipient of two Call-Ups in 2011 – threw himself around the lane against a taller Iowa frontcourt, pulling down 8.5 rebounds with 19.0 points while shooting 63.6 percent from the floor in the two games. He had some help on the inside from Otis George, who grabbed 10.5 rebounds per night, to go along with 18 total points.
“A guy like Otis George can be an NBA backup center,” Musselman said, “and coming into this thing, we didn’t know if he was gonna make our team.”
Then there’s Elijah Millsap, the Top Prospect who averaged 18 points between the two games. Or Orien Greene, the veteran of four NBA seasons, who plagued the Iowa backcourt all series long, with 13 points, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals. Add in the usual contributions from Mardy Collins, Zach Andrews, Brandon Costner and Lakers assignee Christian Eyenga – all of whom could start on virtually every other NBA D-League team – and the D-Fenders needed just two games to move into the semis.
Just barely, though.
Without Moon in Game 2, the D-Fenders struggled to create their usual flow – especially with Millsap going just 6-of-21 from the field. Iowa had the lead for most of the game, until L.A. went ahead late and hung on long enough to watch Stinson’s attempt at a game-tying floater clang off the ring with four seconds left. But even with the win, the D-Fenders looked like a team missing a piece. One that, after a year of player movement, could make them vulnerable for the first time in months.
They’ll face a number of matchup issues against Bakersfield, most notably from Brian Butch, the 6-foot-11 center who’s good for grabbing double-digit rebounds and hoisting somewhere in the range of seven 3-pointers a game (with more than 40 percent of them going in). In the first round, Dakota didn’t close well on the Wisconsin product, and Butch thanked them with a 7-of-14 clip from behind the arc. Not to mention 32 total rebounds.
Meanwhile, guards Jeremy Wise and Trey Johnson bring the ability to create or score every time they come down the floor. Johnson, at 6-5, can operate on the inside if need be, but he was content to put up 13 points and nearly six assists from the outside during the regular season. Meanwhile, Wise, a combo by nature, has turned into one of the league’s premier passers.
Add in NBA D-League veterans Renaldo Major and Derrick Byars as swingmen, and the Jam fill out one of the few offenses in the league that can keep pace with the D-Fenders.
“They’ve had their nucleus for most of the year,” Musselman said. “They’ve got a lot of veterans in Wise and [Renaldo] Major and [Derrick] Byars. It’s not a young team, it’s a team that has a lot of experience.”
- Parity, A Rarity No team's beaten the L.A. D-Fenders more times this year than the Bakersfield Jam. Well, not many teams beat the D-Fenders once. But Bakersfield's pulled it off four times, including most recently on Mar. 30 -- the only loss L.A.'s taken in its past 14 games -- to pull to 4-4 against the D-Fenders this year.
- Jamming the Lane: The Jam, owners of one of the league's most defenseless defenses during the season, rose up in the first round, holding the Wizards to 92.5 points per game -- almost 13 points below Dakota's scoring and Bakersfield's defensive ppg averages. Dakota managed just 41.8-percent shooting in the two games.
- Purple Haze...ll: The D-Fenders signed Jeremy Hazell on Wednesday to fill the hole created by Moon's departure. Hazell, one of the greatest players in Seton Hall history -- and a survivor of a gunshot wound two years ago -- played nine games for Bakersfield earlier this year and now gives the D-Fenders the ability to spread the floor even more against a Jam team that may not have the speed to keep up with them.
|1. Malcolm Thomas, F||1. Brian Butch, C|
|2. Elijah Millsap, G||2. Jeremy Wise, G|
|5. Orien Greene, G||3. Trey Johnson, G|
|4. Zach Andrews, F||4. Derrick Byars, G/F|
|5. Otis George, F||5. Renaldo Major, F|
|Read The Prospect Watch for more!|
|Christian Eyenga, F||Travis Leslie, G|