Besides entering the NBA Developmental League Playoffs as the fourth and final seed in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles D-Fenders have made the Finals for the second time in history looking to capture the franchise’s first D-League title. It took the D-Fenders two deciding Game 3’s on the road to pull off both early round upsets, but coach Casey Owens knows that his resilient and NBA experienced team were always capable of being here – the D-Fenders’ ultimate team goal since training camp.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ D-League affiliate will be matched up against the Eastern Conference champion, who have breezed into the finals with a series of two-game sweeps in both of the previous rounds. Not only have the Miami Heat affiliate Sioux Falls Skyforce played well leading up to the finals, but they’ve been dominant throughout the season, breaking the D-League’s regular season record with a 40-10 mark, and a 44-10 overall record (another D-League record through 54 games) coming into tonight’s game.
Vander Blue, Josh Magette, and the recently named NBA D-League Impact Player of the year, Ryan Gomes, will have their work cut out for them as they go up against the most well-rounded team they’ve faced this season. The Skyforce are led by the D-League’s reigning MVP Jarnell Stokes, who comes in averaging 22.8 points per game. The team also has the league’s Developmental Player of the Year, DeAndre Liggins, who also won the award in 2013-14 with Sioux Falls.
It’s a best-of-three series for the D-League title as Game 1 tipped off at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California.
The D-Fenders won the tip and got on the board early thanks to Vander Blue. He started off scoring the first seven first points hitting his first three shots of the game, including a three-pointer to get the El Segundo crowd pumped. Ryan Gomes helped stretch the lead for the D-Fenders as it was 11-0 before the Skyforce finally got on the board. Sioux Falls would make it an 11-4 game but were struggling to get much going as Los Angeles defense was active early in the first. The Skyforce took its first team timeout with 6:33 remaining in the quarter as the D-Fenders led 15-6. Reigning league MVP Jarnell Stokes and Jabril Trawick got the Skyforce going as the two scored on back-to-back possessions to cut it to a three-point game. Seeing that it is a finals game, both teams came out with a lot of energy which included some trash talking that would result in double technicals for Justin Harper and Jabril Trawick. The Skyforce cut it to a 19-17 deficit, but Josh Magette knocked down a three for his first points of the game to push the lead back to five. At the end of the first, the D-Fenders led 22-21 behind Gomes’ 11 points and Blue’s early eight points.
They Skyforce took their first lead of the game on a Keith Benson hook shot but not before Andre Ingram would regain it for Los Angeles. Magette followed his first three of the game with another one as both teams continued the high pace in the second quarter. With the game tied at 29, Toure’ Murry scored on a reverse layup that gets the Skyforce bench on its feet. For the first half of the quarter, every time it seemed like D-Fenders were starting to take control of the game again, Sioux Falls would come the other end and keep the game tight. Blue checked back in seven minutes remaining and immediately made his impact felt re-tying the game for the D-Fenders on a driving layup to bump him into double-digits. Justin Harper, who was called up to the Detroit Pistons during the regular season for two 10-day contracts, scored his first points on a short corner three giving Los Angeles a one-point lead with 5:52 remaining. During a team timeout, Sioux Falls head coach Dan Craig was imploring the team to keep up the pace and limit the mistakes on the offensive end. On a team that broke the D-League regular season record (40-10), he knew that they had the talent to play better than they were in the first half. The score stayed close throughout the last final minutes as no team could go up more than four points. That was until the Skyforce went on a 12-2 run to end the half as they’d go into the locker room up 51-45. Rodney McGruder led the way with 14 points as Stokes added 12 of his own.
Ryan Gomes began the scoring in the third with a mid-range jumper to chip into the lead. However, DeAndre Liggins would come the other end and hit a three for his first points of the night. The Skyforce continued to push the tempo in the early minutes as they’d have their biggest lead of the game with an 11 point lead with 8:12 remaining. But the D-Fenders would come out of the team timeout aggressive, cutting the deficit down to five, capped by a Vander Blue slam (moved him up to 14 points) off the Josh Magette steal. Sioux Falls pushed the lead back to 11 points but Los Angeles kept chipping away as the quarter winded down. With under two minutes to play, Gomes hit a much-needed three-pointer for the D-Fenders that brought them within single digits. This was followed up by a put-back by Justin Harper where he outworked three Skyforce defenders to give him the offensive board and the score. But at the end of the third, the Skyforce still led by seven points shooting 52.5 percent from the field.
Harper missed the first jumper of the final quarter as Whittington converted on the other end for Sioux Falls to make it a 77-68 lead. Vander Blue, who had struggled beside starting the game off with a 7-0 run of his own, got the D-Fenders going knocking down a pair of free throws and converted on a layup. Gomes followed it up with a layup of his own before Harper got the Toyota Sports Center crowd on its feet with a four-point play opportunity. He would convert the free throw as the D-Fenders only saw themselves down two. The Skyforce responded with a small 4-0 run but Los Angeles had already swung momentum their way. Down by four with 7:33 remaining, Blue hit two free throws off a clear path foul and then followed it up with a jumper to tie the game for the D-Fenders at 84. Sioux Falls continued to have the lead, but the lead wouldn’t surpass four points the next few minutes. Josh Magette made it a 92-91 lead with 3:59 remaining with a pull-up jumper but not before Rodney McGruder would hit a wide-open three off a broken down defensive rotation by Los Angeles. McGruder’s shot not only gave him 30 points on the night, but it gave the Skyforce a four-point lead in a tightly contested game. With the Skyforce now up six with 2:14 left, Blue made it a three-point game on a desperation three that moved him up to 29 points and kept it a one-possession game. However, Sioux Falls converted two free throws as the D-Fenders were trying to get stops to try to at least tie the game. The teams exchanged baskets, but an offensive foul on Blue (pushed off) allowed the Skyforce to regain possession and make it a five-point lead again. The D-Fenders wouldn’t be out of it, though, as Harper hit a three-pointer with 26.2 seconds to make it a two-point deficit (101-99). Los Angeles fouled and were fortunate enough that Bubu Palo missed one free throw to keep it a three-point game with 9.6 seconds. Harper would get a chance to tie it but he air-balled his forced three-point attempt, and that would be the game. In the end, the D-Fenders fell to the Skyforce in Game 1 of the D-League Finals with a final score of 104-99.