The Los Angeles D-Fenders made the D-League playoffs as the Western Conference's fourth and last seed, but the team has pulled off two consecutive upsets to make it all the way to their second D-League Finals in franchise history. The Los Angeles Lakers' D-League affiliate sputtered into the playoffs, losing seven of their last eight games in the regular season, but have come together when it counted to win decisive game threes on the road in both series to punch their ticket to the finals.
The Sioux Falls Skyforce took a different route. Head coach Dan Craig's crew completed two-game sweeps in both of their playoff series so far, a not unexpected postseason result after they had the winningest regular season in D-League history, posting a record of 44-10 on their cruise to the playoffs.
Despite Sioux Falls' historic greatness, the D-Fenders (108.9) actually had a slightly better offensive rating than the Skyforce (108.3) during the regular season. It's the other end where Sioux Falls differentiated themselves, with their defensive rating of 98.5 ranking as the best in the D-League, while Los Angeles gave up 107.2 points per 100 possessions.
The Skyforce have clamped their DRtg down even further to 97.1 during the postseason while improving their offensive one to 113.4. The D-Fenders have also improved their offensive rating to 109.6, but haven't been able to tighten up their defense much (defensive rating of 107).
The D-Fenders have been content to win the majority of their games in shootouts so far in the postseason, but that won't work if Sioux Falls is all over them forcing misses and they can't do the same to the Skyforce on the other end.
A defensive turnaround will have to start with finding a way to keep DeAndre Liggins (8.5 assists per game during the playoffs) from picking them apart. D-Fenders starting point guard Josh Magette has done an excellent job pressuring opposing point guards and delaying teams from getting into early offense all season, but his teammates on the back end will have to stop the rest of the Skyforce from scoring when Liggins gets rid of the ball.
The D-Fenders also can't let Jarnell Stokes get rolling inside. The 6-7 forward is averaging 22.8 points per game while taking a whopping 75.9 percent of his shots in the restricted area, where he is shooting a dominant 78 percent from the field so far in the playoffs. Guard Rodney McGruder has also been a big scoring threat for the Skyforce, busting out for 25.3 points per game during the postseason after only averaging 15.8 during the regular season. If the D-Fenders can't hold at least one of those three players down, it's hard to see a scenario where they can emerge victorious.
Given how much better Los Angeles' offense is than their defense, D-Fenders head coach Casey Owens has smartly had his team pushing the pace this season. If offense is a team's best attribute, it's better to give themselves more possessions and more chances to outscore the other team, and this strategy worked like a charm for Los Angeles for a lot of the year.
The D-Fenders averaged 101.85 possessions per 48 minutes this season, which was the fifth highest pace in the league over that time, but the they've taken their foot off of the gas in the postseason as Owens has looked to his starters for bigger minutes, with the team's pace taking a small dip to 99.65 possessions per 48 minutes in the postseason. On the flip side, the Skyforce have slightly raised their own pace from 98.51 possessions per 48 minutes to 99.68, and if the D-Fenders want a chance, they may have to run that number up several possessions at the very least in this series.
To do so, they will need everything Magette can give them. The D-League's top setup man dropped more dimes than Kevin Love in a State Farm commercial this season, averaging a league-leading 9.2 assists to power the D-Fenders' offense. That has dropped alongside the D-Fenders pace to 7.2 per game in the postseason, even as Magette averages around three more minutes a night, and Los Angeles will have to make strategic use of their timeouts to get him and the rest of the team's starters some much-needed rests.
The D-League's regular season leading scorer, Vander Blue, has upped his production from 26.3 points per game to 27.2, and the D-Fenders may need even more from him in order to claim the title. But asking Blue to efficiently carry the offense on his own against the best defense in the D-League is too much to ask, so the team will need their frontcourt of Justin Harper (20 points per game in the postseason) and Ryan Gomes (22.8) to make themselves bigger threats as well. In order to give them all the room they need to operate, Andre Ingram (who has made 45.8 percent of his threes this postseason) needs to continue the form that's made him the best three-point shooter in D-League history.
In order to have a chance, the D-Fenders will essentially have to play their best offensive games of the season while finding ways to get a few more stops on the other end. It's not impossible, but it may be too much to ask, which is why they will be underdogs against the best regular season team in D-League history when the finals tip off on Sunday at 4 PM PST.
All stats per stats.nbadleague.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.