Shorthanded Toros Seek Hollywood Ending

CEDAR PARK, Tex. -- With one jump, in only the second possession of the game, the entire complexion of this series changed.

After getting struck in the head going for a rebound, Austin’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Eric Dawson suffered a mild concussion. He missed all but 35 seconds of Tuesday night’s Game 1, and his status for the rest of the series, at this point in time at least, is unknown.

The Austin Toros, however, adjusted admirably and even forced the top-seeded L.A. D-Fenders into overtime before falling, 109-101, in Game 1 of the NBA D-League Finals presented by BBVA.

While the circumstances are different, and certainly more unfortunate, the Toros have had ample experience playing without their top post player this year. Over the course of 2011-12, Dawson’s had three separate leaves of absence from the team this season, once because of a flirtation with a team in Slovenia and twice as a result of a GATORADE Call-Up to the San Antonio Spurs.

“Things happened and it definitely helped,” said Austin’s Terrance Woodbury, of having played significant time without Dawson. “He’s been gone a lot this year due to Call-Ups, but we’ve been able to win without him. We know what we have to do. We have other players that will step up and contribute, so we just have to keep it going.“

Complicating things for the Toros was that their best post player not named Dawson – Julian Wright – got in foul trouble early and played only four minutes in the first half as a result.

“We were already going to be undersized going against these guys,” said Austin Head Coach Brad Jones, referencing not only L.A’s length but his own team’s loss of 6-foot-8 Josh Davis and 6-foot-7 Da’Sean Butler to injury prior to the Playoffs. “And then when Eric goes out and Julian goes out, we’re playing a bunch of 6-2 guys against a bunch of 6-9 guys.”

The Toros, by virtue of necessity, went with a small lineup throughout the game, and this opened the door for the 6-foot-7 Woodbury – who says he is naturally a wing player – to play big minutes as one of the tallest Austin players on the floor. Woodbury responded about as well as you could have asked him, as he finished with a team-high 23 points, only the second time this season he scored over 22 points, and a season-high 11 rebounds.

“It was fantastic the way he came off the bench in a moment where we really, really needed him,” Jones said of Woodbury.

Despite Woodbury’s heroics, the D-Fenders were dominant on the glass, besting the undermanned and undersized Toros, 62-42, in that department. Jones referred to the losses of Dawson and Wright by saying that it put them “a little bit behind the eight ball and changed our gameplan a little bit.”

Part of that gameplan was to have the 6-foot-9 Dawson defend – and, just as importantly – box out L.A.’s Malcolm Thomas. With Dawson sidelined, the 6-foot-9 Thomas exploded for 21 points, along with a game-high and Finals-record 25 rebounds.

Even league MVP Justin Dentmon, like Wright, got into early foul trouble. Dentmon picked up two quick fouls and played only five minutes in the first quarter. In fact, the sparkplug guard that averaged 22.5 points per game during the regular season didn’t score his first points until 7:50 remained in the second quarter.

When Dentmon was out, Squeaky Johnson came in and provided a big jolt of energy off the bench that ignited the 3,621 fans in the Cedar Park Center. Johnson scored nine of his 12 points in the first half and finished shooting 4-for-5 from 3-point range, with the lone miss being one that rattled in and out of the rim.

Wright, when he was actually on the floor, played like the accomplished player that we saw in the first two rounds of the Playoffs. The 6-foot-8 forward scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half and he appeared as if he was – aside from Thomas – the post player in the game for either team.

It was an unfortunate chain of events that led Austin to use such a makeshift lineup, but the Toros were able to hang with the D-Fenders all game, even holding a 66-64 edge at the end of three.

“We got depth,” Dentmon said. “I think that’s one of the things that separates us from a lot of teams, that we can play all 10 guys and all 10 guys can come in and contribute like anybody else.”

Another factor in Austin’s somewhat surprising effectiveness is that the Toros are well-versed in making adjustment on the fly. Few, if any, teams in the NBA D-League had to experience as much turnover as the Toros did this season. All in all, the Toros accounted for nine of this season’s record 59 Call-Ups.

“All year it’s been ups and downs, who’s playing, who’s not playing, who’s here, who’s not here, and coach Jones has had a way of finding us and putting us together to figure out a way to play together and play the right way,” Woodbury said. “I feel like we did that tonight, the outcome just wasn’t what we wanted.”

The outcome, however, was extremely close to ending in their favor. In fact, the Toros had a five-point lead with only 1:29 to go. Then, after watching that lead evaporate, thanks to a 3-pointer and pair of free throws by Elijah Millsap, who finished with a game-high 33 points, the Toros got possession of the ball off a Zach Andrews miss with just under five seconds to go. There, they had the option to push it or call a timeout to set up a scripted play. It was then, that the game’s most controversial moment took place.

“The referee called time out for us,” Jones said. “We’ve done this all year long where we tell our guys when we get stops, we’re going to go and attack so they don’t get their defense set up, and I’m telling my guys to go and the referee calls time out.”

“So, I don’t know what else to say without getting fined.”

Regardless of injuries or officiating controversies, the Toros now find themselves in an intimidating hole, although it’s one they’ve become familiar with.

The Toros lost Game 1 of both playoff series they’ve played this year, but both times prior, they were able to finish off the series with two games at home. In the Finals, with the D-Fenders as the top seed, the Toros will be forced to pull off that exacta in a place, the Toyota Sports Center, where the D-Fenders lose about as often as it rains in Los Angeles in the summer.

Still, the team is not deterred.

“I don’t think a lot of people think we have a chance, but the guys in that locker room do,” Jones said. “And we’ll go up there and fight and hopefully compete like we did tonight and maybe change some people’s minds.”

You don’t win as many games as the Toros did this year or come back from a 1-0 deficit twice in the Playoffs unless you’re as confident as you are talented. Beating L.A. twice at home, where it went 23-4 for the season, seems insurmountable. But, Dawson or no Dawson, the Toros still believe there is a Hollywood script to be written in this LA-bound that would allow them to win it all.

“I told them don’t get on the plane tomorrow unless you’re planning on going and winning the series, Jones said.

“And they all said they were getting on the plane.”