LOS ANGELES — Common thought holds that the ingredients for a championship are complicated and nebulous, requiring all types of skills both tangible and intangible. According to the Los Angeles D-Fenders however, the formula is simple.
It just requires 17 bricks.
The Los Angeles Lakers' D-League affiliate may have lost their first and only home game of the three-game D-League Finals 104-99 to the Sioux Falls Skyforce, but the team has a noticeable air of confidence around them heading into two must-win road games because of their trust in their traveling party.
"We have what we call our 17 bricks, that's just the 17 guys we travel with, and that's all we have," said Magette.
The "17 bricks" metaphor was an idea from the coaching staff, meant to signify that each separate member of the team's 17 person travelling party, each player, coach, and assistant, is all a separate brick. When separated, they aren't so impressive. But when put together, they're meant to be unstoppable.
"The point is to stress that each of us, coaches and assistants included, have a role in us getting this done, so the brick gets passed around to one of the 17 [of us] each day," says veteran forward Andre Ingram.
The D-Fenders' brick wall was enough to carry them through two decisive game threes on the road on their way to the Finals, but the Skyforce smashed right through it in Los Angeles on Sunday night behind 30 points and 11 rebounds from their breakout star Rodney McGruder.
Sioux Falls have been like the D-League's version of the Golden State Warriors this season. The Skyforce combined an exciting offense with a downright dominant defense that only gave up a league-best 98.5 points per 100 possessions this season on the team's way to a D-League record 40 wins in 50 games this season.
But while the Warriors are built around the one-of-a-kind ballhandling wizardry of Stephen Curry, the Skyforce are built from the inside-out. It's been McGruder on a tear throughout the postseason, but it was Stokes who truly impressed the D-Fenders. Los Angeles had no answer for the bruising center, who racked up 22 points on 13 shots to go with nine rebounds.
"We'll go back to the drawing board tonight as a coaching staff and break down the film and see what we can do to slow down the MVP," said D-Fenders head coach Casey Owens. "I mean, he proved it tonight. That guy is a handful, he's kind of like a D-League version of [DeMarcus] Cousins out there, he's a beast. So we've got to throw some more stuff at him to make him less comfortable."
"[Stokes] is a load down there," agreed starting point guard Josh Magette. "It starts with him on the block."
If the D-Fenders don't want their season to end on that same block, each brick will have to do its part to slow him down. Los Angeles will also have to find a way to consistently score against the superb Skyforce defense.
"We just have to take care of the ball up there," said Magette, whose four turnovers in the loss only slightly marred his superb line of 14 points, seven steals, and eight assists. "They have so many guys that are like-sized that can switch. They switched most of the ball screens tonight."
That switchability is another similarity between the Skyforce and the Warriors' successes this season, but the D-Fenders hope their own zone defense that forced the Skyforce into 21 turnovers can help sustain any offensive lulls in Sioux Falls.
Owens chalked those difficulties up to the team missing shots they normally make.
"I'll say this: we gave ourselves a shot," said Owens. "I'm not sitting here saying we played poorly. I'm incredibly disappointed we didn't win, but that was a pretty good basketball game."
It was also a chippy one that featured plenty of hard technical fouls, including a play on which Vander Blue took a shot to the head before falling to the ground on a drive to the basket. The D-League's leading regular season scorer responded to the shot by doing push-ups, a move that upset the Skyforce.
"They started talking a little bit, that got me going a little bit as well," said Blue, who led both teams with 31 points on the night.
"We established a common hatred for each other, which is great in the playoffs," Owens laughed about the rapidly growing animosity between two teams that never played against each other in the regular season but now stand in each other's way of a title.
No where was that newfound animosity more evident than the D-Fender's final possession of the game, an airballed three-pointer by center Justin Harper that drew catcalls from the Sioux Falls' bench.
"Y'all don't want to come to the Sioux!"
"Land of no return!"
Whether they want to or not, the D-Fenders are now bound for Sioux Falls, where the Skyforce have lost just three times in 27 games this season. The D-Fenders will need to nearly match that number by winning both of their games in a road back-to-back. To do so, Los Angeles' 17 bricks will have to scheme up some mortar to form an impenetrable wall two more times.
They believe they can do it.
"I think when we're helping each other out, rotating, rebounding, and running I think that's when we're at our best," said Blue. "I think towards the middle of the game we got a little stagnant, lost a little bit of energy, and they took full advantage and all praise goes to them, but we'll be ready come next game."
All quotes obtained firsthand. All stats per stats.nbadleague.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.