NBA D-League Playoffs
Mad Ants at Sioux Falls
Game 1: 8 p.m. Fort Wayne time Thursday in Sanford Pentagon
On the web: NBA.com/dleague
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Mad Ants coach Conner Henry hit the practice floor in November preaching unselfishness and sharing the basketball.
That team-oriented focus – no easy sell in minor-league hoops – has led Fort Wayne to more wins than any other team in the NBA Development League this season, and it has the Mad Ants four wins away from a championship.
Not only have the Ants embraced the concept of sharing the load, they enter the D-League best-of-three semifinals at Sioux Falls on Thursday coming off the most stunning example of that culture.
The Mad Ants took 98 shots in their 115-93 win over Reno on Sunday and here's how they were distributed: Tony Mitchell 19 shots, Matt Bouldin 14, Sadiel Rojas 13, Will Frisby 13, Trey McKinney-Jones 12, Tim Ohlbrecht 11, Ron Howard 9 and Chris Porter 7. The Ants combined for 30 assists on 43 made shots.
“Everybody's sacrificing something, that's just the way it is,” Bouldin said. “There are a lot of teams that really struggle because they have a few guys trying to get theirs and putting up 20, 30 shots a game. Those teams weren't that successful.”
The more equally the shots are divided, the tougher the Mad Ants become to defend. Which Fort Wayne player draws the best defender? Opposing teams can concentrate on limiting Howard or Mitchell, both averaging just above 20 points per game, but then they leave themselves vulnerable to McKinney-Jones, Bouldin, Rojas or one of the big men.
“Trey's a great example,” Bouldin said. “If he was getting 20 shots a game, who knows what he'd be averaging? Everybody on this team – Ron, Trey, Tony, Tim, Friz, me, Sadi – everybody can score.”
McKinney-Jones, a rookie who played at the University of Miami, pointed to Howard and Porter as the players who set the unselfish tone when he first arrived.
“Ron and CP took me under their wings early on,” McKinney-Jones said. “They told me I would need to be very aggressive if we wanted to be successful. That's one thing that opened my eyes. Usually, guys want to shoot all the shots themselves.”
The offensive balance protects the Mad Ants against nights when one or two of their scoring leaders has an off game.
Seven different players have led the Ants in scoring this season as the team compiled a league best 34-16 record. Howard, the team's leading scorer and all-time career leader in the D-League, has only led the team in points once in the last 12 games. The Ants won 11 of those games, incidentally.
“We have 10 guys who could lead the team in scoring and happen to be 'the man' that night,” McKinney-Jones said. “That takes a little bit of weight off everybody's shoulders. Obviously, you want to play well, but if you're not having a good night, the odds are in our favor that another one of our players – or two or three – are having a good game. It definitely helps, the depth we have.”
Offensive balance can be a real key on the road. The backing of a home crowd, such as the one at the Sioux Falls Arena, tends to favor the defensive intensity of the home team. The less the offensive load is on one individual player, the more likely it is to break that defense down.
Sioux Falls was 31-19 in the regular season and had the best record of the four wildcard teams. The Skyforce beat Canton 2-1 in their first-round series, led by strong play from guards DeAndre Liggins and Tre Kelley and forwards Craig Smith, Anthony Mason Jr. and Henry Walker. Veteran guard Larry Drew II also contributes significantly at both ends of the court.
The D-League's best-of-three format sends the higher seed on the road to open the series.
“I don't like that rule at all; I don't think there's much advantage playing your first game there,” Bouldin said. “You just have to have that much more focus going in, knowing if you get that first road win you really set yourself up with a good chance to win the series with two games at home.
“The home team always has an advantage with the crowd and everything, but it's not like we haven't played anywhere before in tough arenas.”
Another benefit of the offensive balance and shared scoring load is team chemistry. Everyone feels like they're important parts of the success. Some nights, such as Frisby's 20 points in Game 2 vs. Reno, an unexpected scoring source surfaces.
“We're a very confident group,” McKinney-Jones said. “I don't think the road messes with us the way it might other teams. I think we play pretty well on the road.”
The Ants are 16-10 on the road this season, counting playoffs, tied with defending champion Rio Grande Valley for the most road success this season.
“It's not usually what you would think, that if you're the higher seed, you start the playoffs on the road,” McKinney-Jones said. “You really have to bring it the first game.”