PORTLAND – The clock is ticking down in the fourth quarter of a close game. Dave Leitao, the first-year coach of the Maine Red Claws, looks down the bench at his reserves and mentally begins the debate:

“Keep my five best players in the game? Or put in a player who’s still working on parts of his game?”

There’s no easy answer.

“That’s a challenge,” said Leitao during a recent break in practice. “I don’t know if it’s the biggest challenge but it is a challenge to one day think about sacrificing one’s development for a (win) and the next day sacrificing a W for one’s development.”

It’s a balance that every coach in the NBA Development League faces on a nightly basis.

The very name of the league suggests its focus: the development of the player.

“We would like to make the playoffs, we would like to go far in the playoffs,” said Jon Jennings, the president and general manager of the Red Claws. “But of course, (D-League success) is never predicated on winning or losing. We are still the NBA Development League.

“We have an obligation to these players to help develop them. Our goal is to always win a championship, but we also have to recognize we have dual purposes in terms of the development of our players.”

The players understand that. But they also want to win. Winning is what is going to get you noticed.

“Unless you’re really something special,” said rookie center Mike Tisdale, “you’ve got to win to get noticed.”

Kenny Hayes, the second-year guard on the Red Claws, said winning and development have to go hand-in-hand.

“I’m a competitor,” he said. “It’s like, if I’m in something, I’m in it to win, no matter what it is. I want to develop, but at the same time I don’t want to develop and lose.

“I want to develop and win.”

Hayes was here last year when the Red Claws struggled to an 18-32 record. That came off a first season in which the Red Claws collapsed down the stretch to fall out of playoff contention.

Hayes wants to get the Red Claws into the postseason for the first time.

“I feel the fans here in Maine deserve a championship,” he said. “They came out and supported us last year (filling the Portland Expo for every home game) and our record was horrible.

“I feel we definitely owe them something for that support.”

Practice time is especially important for these players. That’s where they work on their game — “You make your weaknesses into strengths,” said Tisdale — both individually and as a team.

Practice is where Leitao begins to form his opinions on who is going to play in crunch time. And not just by charting how many jump shots a player makes or doesn’t make. The development has to be mental as well.

“If we can be successful in a player’s mental development, then he’ll understand on the court what might be acceptable and what’s not (acceptable) when it’s his turn in the game,” said Leitao. “If he’s smart enough, and we’ve talked about it enough, and he’s taking shots in practice that may or may not go in then he probably shouldn’t be taking them (in a game).”

Durrell Summers, a rookie shooting guard from Michigan State, said players have to understand their roles.

“Basically you work on your individual game, and you correct yourself and try to put that into the team scheme as best you can,” he said. “Some people have to sacrifice parts of their game for the team. You’ve got to do whatever you can to help the team win. You do that and you’ll be noticed.”

“It is a difficult balance, winning and development,” said rookie forward Chris Wright, the team’s top draft pick this year. “But as a player, you’ve got to understand the importance of it every day, you’ve got to focus on development every single day in practice.

“In practice, you’ll talk about the (upcoming) game and prepare to go out and do what you do best to win the game. But at the same time, you work on things that are difficult. And really, you don’t have nothing but time to practice on your own.”

Wright lives with Hayes, who is his cousin. The two compete in everything they do. And they share the desire to win.

“Of course I want to win,” said Wright. “You play to win every night. But if you don’t focus on what you’re doing in practice, you’re not going to develop.”

Leitao and Jennings love that attitude. They want players who want to learn. And to win.

That’s why, said Jennings, they’re going to do everything possible to put together a good team.

“Coach Leitao and I have made a commitment to each other to make this the best possible season we can,” he said. “So Coach and I will look at all the available talent there is and try to make sure we put the best possible team on the floor.

“And I would say we’ve got a very good start at it.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH