In a finals game in any sports league, it is typical to expect big time performances, exciting story lines, and a closely fought game that has every fan on the edge of their seat. Though the D-League lacks the attendance and media coverage of most sporting leagues, their finals game on Sunday night went above and beyond all expectations in terms of entertainment. In a closely fought battle, the Dakota Wizards edged out the Colorado 14ers in overtime for a 129-121 win, and their first D-League title in their inaugural season in the NBAs minor league.
The 14ers started hot, behind the strong play of Pooh Jeter
and Rick Rickert. Dakota coach Dave Joerger was displeased with his teams effort early on, and took two early timeouts. Dakota was able to get it going on the offensive end, but trailed 33-25 at the conclusion of the first quarter.
The second quarter was a different story however, thanks to 24 year old forward Darius Rice. By halftime, Rice had already broken the D-League record for three pointers in a game with 7, and his hot shooting had given the Wizards a 64-56 advantage going into halftime. Dakota scored 39 points in the second half, and seemed to gain the emotional edge they lacked during the first 12 minutes of the game.
The second half continued with a series of runs by each team, with each team gaining the advantage for a period of time, but failing to pull away by more than an 8 point margin at most. Pooh Jeter
continued his strong play in the third quarter, and was helped by Tony Bobbitt
, who scored the majority of his points on spot-up jump shots. A pair of jumpers from Jeter and a 3 pointer from Bobbitt gave the 14ers a 69-68 lead, but the Wizards regained the advantage thanks to a pair of three pointers by Darius Rice. At the conclusion of the third, Dakota led 86-80 on their home court.
Dakota held onto the lead for the majority of the fourth quarter, and it appeared that they could pull away mid-way through the fourth quarter. Tony Bobbitt
and Pooh Jeter
came back with a pair of three pointers, however, and Colorado regained the lead by a 95-93 margin. Rod Benson
finished the game strong by first making a right handed hook shot on the block, and following it up with a beautiful reverse lay-up from under the basket. Darius Rice followed Bensons shots with another three pointer, giving the Wizards a 5 point lead. Pooh Jeter
came back with a couple baskets and a beautiful pass across the court to Elton Brown
, who was open in the paint, and Colorado regained a 109-106 lead with less than 20 seconds remaining. Dakota called timeout and ran a play for Darius Rice, whose clutch three pointer tied the game at 109. Elton Brown
quickly advanced the ball, and rimmed out a running three pointer at the buzzer that nearly won the game for Colorado. Instead, the D-League season was extended for another 5 minutes.
In overtime, Dakota jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. Darius Rice opened the scoring in the extra period by faking a three pointer and taking two dribbles before sinking a jumper from 14 feet. He hit another jumper after the Wizards were able to get the stop on the defensive end, and a put-back by Rod Benson
put the score at 115-109 in favor of the Wizards. Colorado attempted to get back into the game by fouling, but clutch free throw shooting gave the Dakota Wizards the win by a score of 129-121.
The MVP of the game clearly went to Darius Rice, who set a new D-League scoring record with 52 points, in addition to 11 three pointers made. He finished 18/29 from the field and 11/19 from the three point line while adding 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks. A 610 small forward, Rice has always been intriguing to NBA teams thanks to good size for his position in addition to his solid leaping ability, beautiful shooting stroke and unlimited range on his shot. It was always questioned whether he had the mentality to play in the NBA, however, and he really didnt seem to develop since his freshman year of college. Even in his career game in the D-League championship game, Rice scored the bulk of his 52 points on spot-up three pointers, while mixing in a couple mid-range moves throughout the game. Improving his ball-handling skills and proving he can defend on the perimeter would go a long ways in showing NBA people that he can play the small forward position in their league. Still, a 52 point game with the season on the line, including a number of clutch shots could act as a real sparkplug for him, and it will be interesting to see if this game has any effect on a potential NBA career.
Though his performance is easy to forget because his team lost, Pooh Jeter
did all he could to keep his team in the game throughout. Going into the playoffs, Colorado had lost Louis Amundson
and Von Wafer to NBA teams. Despite the depleted roster, Jeter stepped up and did his best to lead Colorado through the playoffs. In three playoff games, the rookie point guard averaged 25.7 points and 8.3 assists per game, while showing great leadership ability on the court. In the opinion of more than one DraftExpress writer, Pooh Jeter
has what it takes to play at the NBA level. When talking to D-League players this season, many of them thought Jeter was the best point guard in the league over both Will Conroy
and Randy Livingston
. Size will certainly be a limiting factor for his NBA hopes, but the rookie has amazing speed up and down the court, and can play as a scorer or distributor. Jeter only took 38 three pointers on the season, but he has proven very solid with his scoring inside of 20 feet. It will be quite exciting to watch him play during the summer league this season, and he should have a chance to make an NBA team out of training camp next season.
All of us at DraftExpress would like to thank Rod Benson
for his contributions to the site this year, and it was great to watch him contribute in a big way in the championship game. While most people know Rod for his witty blog entries, most people dont realize that he has really played well for the Dakota Wizards this season. He has been one of the better rebounders in the entire league since January, and made a series of timely plays in the final game of the D-League season. Rod Benson
finished the game with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 6 blocks, while playing key minutes late in the fourth quarter and in overtime.
Two of the top performers in the D-League Championship game probably went unnoticed to most viewers. Renaldo Major and Chris McCray
played key roles for the Wizards, making a number of little plays throughout the game. Their pesky defense on the perimeter has proven to be an extremely important factor in Dakotas championship. Major received a 10 day contract from the Golden State Warriors earlier this season, and has gained recognition for his slashing ability off the dribble as well as lockdown defense. The 24 year old out of Fresno State has a very underrated ability to break down the defense and pass the ball to the open man, and many of his passes led to easy baskets for the Wizards on Sunday night. Major must work on his shooting ability to establish himself as a true NBA player (28% from 3 on the season), but he has no problem deferring to other players, and improved shooting would likely make him a long term NBA player.
McCray also made some very nice passes, as well as a few hustle plays throughout the game. He started the season with the Milwaukee Bucks, but struggled to get into the flow of things coming off the bench for the Wizards this season. A rookie from Maryland, McCray will make good money overseas should he fail to make it back to the NBA.
In the coming days, we will be releasing a list of D-League awards as done by the four DraftExpress writers who have covered the NBAs Development League this season. Check back later in the week for the awards and a D-League season wrap-up.