As dramatic opening acts, the first two games of the D-League Eastern Conference semifinals between the Maine Red Claws and Fort Wayne Mad Ants couldn’t have been scripted any better.
In Game 1 in Indiana, the Red Claws rallied to force overtime and won, 110-106. In Game 2 Monday night at the Portland Expo, the Mad Ants overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to win, 111-110.
Each time, the home team had two shots to go ahead in the final seconds. Georges Niang missed twice (one courtesy of an Arthur Edwards block) for the Mad Ants in Fort Wayne and, for the Claws, neither Abdel Nader nor Demetrius Jackson could get the basketball to drop Monday night at the Expo.
The combined length of time the winning teams held a second-half lead: 18 seconds.
A deciding Game 3 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Expo. The winner will host Raptors 905, the top seed in the East and the only team to sweep its first-round opponent (Canton), at 5 p.m. Sunday.
The Western Conference final is set. No. 1 Oklahoma City will play No. 3 Rio Grande Valley in another best-of-three series.
Red Claws Coach Scott Morrison watched video of Game 2 and saw the Mad Ants force Maine into seven fourth-quarter turnovers. They also converted six fast-break baskets.
“To their credit, if they didn’t have transition, they really put their head down and drove hard to the basket,” Morrison said. “We couldn’t keep them out of the rim area down the stretch.”
As painful as it was to again see that lead slip away in a game that could have clinched the franchise’s first playoff series victory, Morrison appreciated that the Claws are among the four teams of 22 still playing.
“This is why we coach and play,” he said before practice Tuesday at the Expo. “Everyone loves basketball and we’re pretty lucky to have this job. The reason that you do it is times like this, the competition.”
The Claws haven’t figured out a way to keep Fort Wayne center Tyler Hansbrough in check. A seven-year NBA veteran and former national college player of the year at North Carolina, Hansbrough has averaged 28 points and 17.5 rebounds. He has 19 offensive rebounds in two games, matching Maine’s total.
“He’s a physical specimen, your typical NBA power forward/center,” said Red Claws swingman Abdel Nader. “He’s really good at finding his spots and how he wants to seal you in the post, and finish quickly, so it’s hard to double-team him.”
Jordan Mickey handled much of the responsibility for Hansbrough with occasional assistance from Guerschon Yabusele. Mickey matched Hansbrough’s 27 points Monday and with 13 was within two of his rebounding total, but Mickey also fouled out with 18 seconds remaining.
Fort Wayne converted 29 of 32 free throws. Maine made just 15 of 20, offsetting the Red Claws’ 50 percent shooting (42 of 84) from the field.
“The foul trouble wasn’t as big as the free throws,” Morrison said. “They had way too many.”
Yabusele, nicknamed The Dancing Bear for his physique and agility, delighted the home crowd in his Expo debut by making his first three shots, delivering six assists and pulling down nine rebounds. He made one of his five 3-point attempts and passed up a few more open looks from beyond the arc.
“We have confidence in him to shoot it,” Morrison said. “I think he’s an unselfish player by nature. He’s a good passer and gets assists. Maybe he’s over-thinking it or trying to be a good teammate, but we’re going to need him to be a threat.”