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The Mad Ants are 4-0 in the playoffs, heading to the NBA Development League finals for the first time and making it look easy.
Don't believe your eyes. Excellence like this is much harder than it looks. Longtime Ants guard Ron Howard will testify to that.
“It's amazing to make the finals, but it takes a lot of hard work, I would say,” Howard said. “We've had a great year, but we've had some rough games and rough moments and that lets you understand it's not easy at all. We've had a lot of success, but it's not easy. It takes all the guys buying into everything going on. It takes everyone sacrificing something. Everyone has to.”
The Mad Ants will play the winner of Santa Cruz vs. Rio Grande Valley in the best-of-three D-League Finals, starting Wednesday or Thursday. Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) will be at Memorial Coliseum on Saturday and April 28.
Santa Cruz plays at Rio Grande Valley in the rubber game of their semifinals series tonight. The Ants reached the finals with a 2-0 semifinal sweep of Sioux Falls, beating the Skyforce 126-118 in Game 2 on Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum.
Fort Wayne used its usual dose of unselfish, balanced offense to take out Sioux Falls on Saturday, building a 29-point halftime lead and holding on through an inevitable Skyforce surge. Four Ants players scored 20 or more: Howard 25, Matt Bouldin 24, Tony Mitchell 21 and Sadiel Rojas 20. Trey McKinney-Jones added 16.
Regardless of who wins the Santa Cruz vs. Rio Grande Valley series, it'll be essentially a foreign opponent. The Ants played only one game against each team in the regular season, losing 107-102 to Rio Grande Valley on Dec. 28 and beatig Santa Cruz 101-97 on Jan. 6.
Since that time, the Ants have added Bouldin and center Tim Ohlbrecht to the rotation and both have come up with big moments in the postseason.
That's not to say the Ants haven't had continuity during this franchise-best season. Six players have been with the team every game (Howard, Rojas, McKinney-Jones, Will Frisby, Chris Porter and Ramon Harris). Anthony Harris started with the team and returned late. Tony Mitchell joined the team in January.
Each step along the way, the Ants have found a way to blend their respective talents, peppering some NBA rookies into the lineup along the way.
There's a trick to incorporating various personalities into a share-the-load philosophy, and coach Conner Henry has used the exact touch needed.
“To come in every day and do the things needed to have a good season, win games and go on to playoffs takes work,” Howard said. “It takes a lot of hard work. This is a great group of guys and they've bought into what we're doing. It's going to take more of the same if we want to bring this thing home.”
It's fascinating how sometimes people equate team basketball to boring basketball, because the Ants' style is anything but boring.
In fact, two huge rebound baskets stood out Saturday night, different in their delivery but each incredible in their athleticism. The first was by Rojas, who came around the baseline and grabbed a rebound for a put-back over his head. The second was Mitchell's one-handed slam in which his arm stretched to reach the ball in ways previously thought humanly impossible. Howard says Mitchell is “the most freakishly athletic player in the D-League.” Rojas surely makes the top 10, too.
The way the players feed off each other helps give the impression that everything is coming easy for the Mad Ants.
“They're a pretty happy bunch right now,” Henry said after Saturday's win. “We've added a few things as the season slowed down, and certain teams haven't seen as much. We'll get in the next three days and add some wrinkles that can get us some easy buckets. Then it comes down to getting mentally right and going for it.”
Maybe “easy” isn't the right adjective of the Mad Ants' recent play. “Smooth” works, though, until they can officially use “championship.”