In the moments after the Maine Red Claws pulled out an overtime win at Fort Wayne on Tuesday night, Abdel Nader sidled up to point guard Demetrius Jackson, who had just scored 30 points in 43 minutes – both high-water marks for the season.
“That’s the D.J. we need,” Nader said two days later. “That’s the D.J. I’ve been waiting for all year. That’s the one we saw at Notre Dame and early in the preseason. We need that D.J. all the time.”
After six consecutive playoff losses dating to 2013, the Red Claws finally pulled off their first franchise postseason victory, 110-106. Game 2 of their best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series with Fort Wayne is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday at the Portland Expo. Game 3, if necessary, would be Wednesday night at the Expo.
Jackson hadn’t even reached 20 points in his previous 17 D-League games. But after Marcus Georges-Hunt was signed April 3 by the Orlando Magic, Jackson understood he would be expected to shoulder more of the backcourt burden for the Claws.
He also contributed six assists, seven rebounds, a block and a steal to offset five turnovers. Jackson’s reverse layup gave Maine a 107-102 lead with 36 seconds left in overtime and his free throw with three seconds remaining clinched it.
Monday’s game will provide the first opportunity for Maine fans to see the Dancing Bear. Guerschon Yabusele, drafted 16th overall by the Boston Celtics last June, played in China this winter before joining the Claws for the final two games of the regular season and Tuesday’s playoff game.
Yabusele came off the bench Tuesday night and scored six points in 23 minutes, going 0 of 3 on 3-pointers but 3 of 4 from inside the arc. He had two rebounds and two turnovers.
“It wasn’t his best game of the three, for sure, but it was the toughest competition he’s faced in Hansbrough,” said Red Claws Coach Scott Morrison, referring to Fort Wayne center Tyler Hansbrough, an NBA veteran who had 29 points and 20 rebounds – half of them on the offensive end.
“All of us were impressed with Hansbrough’s physicality and his presence on the floor. We’ll be ready for that a little bit better on Monday. Whether that means we can do any better job, I don’t know. He’s a very good player.”
Yabusele said he’s still learning plays and his responsibilities on the team, but that the Claws have welcomed him warmly.
“I’m really happy to be around these guys,” he said.
“We’re playing pretty good. I like the chemistry. I like the team.”
Fort Wayne’s success on the offensive glass (24 rebounds to Maine’s 11) combined with 16 Red Claws turnovers allowed the Mad Ants to hoist 24 more shots (107-83) than the Claws. Fort Wayne isn’t likely to repeat its 16 percent shooting (4 of 25) from beyond the arc.
“We weren’t perfect,” Morrison said.
“We had too many turnovers and gave up too many rebounds, and didn’t shoot that well. But they had some tough luck shooting as well and we had two or three hustle plays that kind of changed the course of the game.”
Arthur Edwards blocked a shot in the waning seconds of regulation. In overtime, Jordan Mickey (26 points, 16 rebounds) stole an inbounds pass and also converted an offensive rebound for Maine’s first basket. And with eight seconds left in the game, Jalen Jones reached over Hansbrough to bat away the rebound of a Nader missed free throw and Mickey tracked it down beyond midcourt.
“We got more breaks than they did in Game 1,” Morrison said. “I hope we’re lined up for some good luck as well on Monday.”
Because the Expo was hosting the Portland Home Show over the weekend, the Claws spent the past four days practicing at four sites: South Portland Community Center, Biddeford High, Deering High and South Portland High.
Last year, they played – and lost – their only postseason home game at cavernous Cross Insurance Arena.
“We lost a lot of games at the Expo so it’s no guarantee we’re going to win,” Morrison said. “But at least we have our home surroundings for those four hours, pregame and game time, so we have no excuses in that regard.”
The winner of the Maine-Fort Wayne series will advance to the Eastern Conference finals against top-seeded Raptors 905, which completed a sweep of Canton on Saturday night in Mississauga, Ontario with a 108-90 victory. In Game 1 Wednesday night, the 905 blew a 20-point lead before winning 112-107 in Ohio.
Should the Claws win Monday or Wednesday, they would host Raptors 905 in Game 1 of the conference finals later this week.