PORTLAND – At the close of Wednesday’s light practice, Maine Red Claws Coach Mike Taylor gathered his team at half court.
He told the Claws he was proud of their season-long effort. Then he emphasized how Thursday night’s game against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers is the 4-year-old franchise’s first D-League playoff game.
“It’s a big deal. You have to understand it was my dream, my season goal, everything that I wanted for all of us, to make the playoffs,” Taylor said later. “We’ve done it. Now that we’ve done it, there isn’t much expectation. The eighth seed, these guys just got in, but we’ve kind of peaked at the right time.”
The roster is drastically different than the last time they faced the second-seeded and Central Division champion Vipers (35-15).
Even though Maine (26-24) featured current NBA players Shelvin Mack and DuJuan Summers, Rio Grande Valley rolled to a pair of wins: 113-95 in Portland on Feb. 2 and 139-122 in McAllen, Texas, on Feb. 12.
“I think we’re way more explosive in terms of scoring on the wings,” Taylor said. “While we’ve lost Shelvin Mack, a great player, to the NBA, Curtis Jerrells has come in and done a fantastic job. I’d like to think we’re not as one-dimensional as we were at the beginning. We were pretty reliant on Shelvin Mack.”
With this week’s release of small forward Micah Downs, who had played in 48 of the 50 regular-season games, starting forward Chris Wright and key reserve Omar Reed are the only current Red Claws who saw time against the Vipers.
“We had just had trades, we had just had guys injured. It was a bunch going on with our team,” Wright said of the losses to the Vipers. “It’s a lot different now. This is our team.”
Game time is 7 p.m. at the Expo. Tickets were available as of Wednesday (phone: 210-6655 or online at www.ticketreturn.com). The best-of-three series shifts to Texas for Saturday’s Game 2 (8 p.m.). The third game, if needed, is Monday in Texas, again at 8.
The D-League uses a unique format: The three division winners choose their first-round opponent. Bakersfield, the top seed, opted to avoid a cross-country trip and chose to play sixth-seed Austin. With the second choice, Rio Grande Valley selected Maine.
Shooting guard Jermaine Taylor is one of the newest Red Claws. He’s averaged a team-leading 24.4 points in eight games since being claimed after a 17-game stint in China, which followed a two-game stay in Israel. Taylor poured in a team-record 49 points March 23 at Springfield.
“I just come in and do what I do,” Jermaine Taylor said. “There’s a lot of different personalities and different roles on this team. My role has always been to be a scorer. That’s what I’m good at. That’s the reason I am where I am today.”
Taylor, a veteran of 65 NBA games, had stints with the Vipers the past two seasons.
He said he anticipates the game pace will slow, defenses will stiffen and the play may become more physical.
“A championship is a championship,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t matter what it is, you want to be the best. Guys are going to play harder. They’re going to do whatever they need to do.”
NOTES: Downs, who led the Claws in games, asked to be released, Mike Taylor said. Downs wanted time with his family to review multiple overseas opportunities, the coach said. Maine claimed 6-foot-7 Justin Hawkins, a 27-year-old out of New Mexico State via the French Pro A league, on Saturday to fill Downs’ small forward role off the bench.
Reserve center Garrett Stutz, who has missed recent games with an injury, is listed as questionable but has shown physical improvement. Point guard Jerrells is one Claw with D-League playoff experience. In 2009-10 he was the starter for the Austin Toros and averaged 27 points in six playoff games that year.
Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at: