EL SEGUNDO- With a few minutes remaining in the Los Angeles D-Fenders’ third game of the season against the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the purple and gold appeared to have plenty of reason for distress. They were trailing against the team that had beaten them in the most recent D-League Finals and looked set to lose to them for the third time this season and second time in less than a week.
"He's about to cry, look. He's about to cry," one of the Sioux Falls players shouted from the bench at D-Fenders point guard Josh Magette, but in the end of another battle between the D-League’s two best teams it would be the Skyforce that walked away sad, even refusing to shake hands with Los Angeles following the game.
Magette didn’t have his strongest shooting night (1-14), but he finished with 13 assists to help power the D-Fenders comeback in their 125-120 win over their former Finals foe. Magette’s key steal with 1:28 left helped set up a three-pointer for fellow point guard Kenneth “Speedy” Smith, and his first three of the night gave Los Angeles a 121-119 they wouldn’t relinquish.
Smith had missed his previous four threes of the night and has shot just 26.2 percent on three-pointers this season, the second-worst rate on the team. Some coaches wouldn’t have wanted him to shoot, but Karl isn’t most coaches.
“I never doubted it,” said D-Fenders head coach Coby Karl “On the one he passed up before, I yelled at him for not shooting that one. So maybe I'm crazy.”
If Karl is crazy, he’s not alone.
"Speedy actually turned one down, and I kind of yelled at him and told him to shoot it because I know what he's capable of. He works out with me every day and gets extra shots up,” said D-Fenders leading scorer Vander Blue. “I have more faith in those guys than anything. I'll pass that every time."
The shot allowed the D-Fenders to partially exorcise the demons of a three-game D-League Finals defeat and two losses following late turnovers against the Skyforce earlier this season.
"It feels really good, but the times that they had beat us, we just beat ourselves,” said Smith. “They did nothing that was outstanding or made us look at ourselves like we were defeated.”
Whether or not the D-Fenders felt defeated following three-straight defeats against Sioux Falls, the win offered proof that they can beat the Skyforce, as well as giving Los Angeles (21-6) sole possession of the best record in the D-League.
However, the D-Fenders needed a late 20-3 game-closing run to get there, and to get that production they turned to Blue. The D-League’s second leading scorer (25.4 ppg) rose to the occasion with 37 points, and Karl called Blue the key to the team’s comeback.
"At halftime I was struggling a little bit, but my teammates stayed on me. They told me to keep at it, just keep going, keep my focus and keep my energy so I just wanted to do whatever I could to try to help my team win," Blue said.
He was flanked by some of the team’s new additions. The D-Fenders outrebounded the Skyforce 57-27 on the strength of a 20-7 disparity on the offensive glass. Jeff Ayres (seven offensive rebounds) and rookie David Nwaba (four) led the assault on the team’s own boards when they realized the Skyforce were playing small.
"There's not too many guards that can box me out, so I'm going to the boards,” said Ayres. “Sometimes we get them, and sometimes we don't, but when we get them it's a big momentum play."
Those types of momentum may have helped shift momentum in the rivalry back to the D-Fenders, which could be a major development, because just as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors appear all but locked in for another Finals rematch, the Skyforce and D-Fenders top-two D-League records would appear to leave them careening towards a second Finals matchup.
"They're a great team. If we're really looking at how the D-League is lined up right now, it's between us and them, the top teams in the league,” Ayres said, and if his evaluation of the state of the league is correct, he and Nwaba’s presences are leaving the D-Fenders confident this Finals sequel will have a different outcome than the original movie.
"David is probably the best defender in the league, and Jeff Ayres, his presence is unbelivable,” Blue said. “Having that completely changes the identity of our team."