After two years of playoff disappointments, the Maine Red Claws are enjoying their first trip to the NBA D-League’s Eastern Conference finals.
Nobody more so than veteran guard Coron Williams.
It was Williams who provided a steady hand when flu-weakened point guard Demetrius Jackson went down hard in the third quarter Wednesday night and did not return. Williams was 4 for 4 from the field (three 3-pointers and a driving layup in traffic late in the fourth quarter) to help rally the Claws to a 124-119 series-clinching victory over Fort Wayne.
Now the Red Claws face Raptors 905, a second-year affiliate of the Toronto Raptors that posted the league’s best regular-season record – 39-11.
Game 1 of their best-of-three series is 5 p.m. Sunday at the Portland Expo. Game 2 is Wednesday night in Mississauga, Ontario, with Game 3 the following night if needed.
“I’ve been thinking about them all year long,” Williams said of the Raptors. “Last time, I feel like I lost my matchup with (Brady) Heslip. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, so I really wanted to get this game.”
The Raptors visited the Expo twice this season, winning in early December and again in mid-January, a 110-94 decision in which Heslip scored 16 points and Williams, in a starting role, scored 14. Their plus-minus ratings (team points scored minus points allowed while they were on the floor) favored Heslip, however. He was plus-17, while Williams was minus-11.
The Claws won twice in Ontario, in late November and late December.
Just as the Claws lost versatile guard Marcus Georges-Hunt to the NBA (Orlando) on the eve of the D-League playoffs, the Raptors lost 7-foot-3 center Edy Tavares (Cleveland) and, after their first playoff game, forward Axel Toupane (New Orleans).
Tavares led the league in blocks. Toupane scored 41 points in an overtime playoff win at Canton.
“They’re the best team in the league,” said Red Claws Coach Scott Morrison. “They just lost a couple guys this week to call-ups, but I’m expecting they’ll have two or three NBA guys with them. We’re going to have to be at our best to have a chance.”
Bruno Caboclo, who played 17 minutes for Toronto’s parent team in its NBA regular-season finale Wednesday night against Cleveland, and Pascal Siakam, who played 28 minutes in that same game, started both playoff games against Canton. Point guard Fred VanVleet, who played in 37 NBA games and 16 D-League games this season, is another possibility.
Heslip is the Raptors’ main 3-point threat, but John Jordan, E.J. Singler, Antwaine Wiggins and Christian Watford can also hit from deep. Jerry Stackhouse, an 18-year veteran of the NBA, is coach of the Raptors and architect of the league’s stingiest defense.
“We try to keep teams around 40 percent (shooting) or lower and under 100 points,” he said during his most recent visit to Portland in January. “This is a (Maine) team we’re going to see again. Well coached, has some real talent, and they compete. You want guys who compete, who play with heart, and play within the system, and I think both teams do that really well.”
Against Fort Wayne, Morrison started a lineup of Jackson and Jordan Mickey from the Celtics, alongside D-League rookie of the year Abdel Nader, Jalen Jones and Cameron Ayers. Guerschon “The Dancing Bear” Yabusele played a prominent role off the bench. Yabusele, picked 16th overall by the Celtics in last June’s draft, endeared himself to the Expo crowd with his joviality coupled with a nimble power forward game that has been compared to that of Golden State’s Draymond Green.
“He’s a crowd favorite,” Morrison said. “When someone’s that big and that agile and has a good nickname, it’s inevitable.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or: