C.J. Leslie missed his previous playoff game because of the flu. On Sunday night at an unusually warm Portland Expo, he made Red Claws fans queasy.
Leslie scored 33 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and the top-seeded Raptors 905 played stifling defense to beat the Maine Red Claws 109-84 in Game 1 of the NBA D-League Eastern Conference finals before a crowd of 1,358.
The 905, a second-year franchise affiliated with the Toronto Raptors, can wrap up the best-of-three series Wednesday night in Mississauga, Ontario. The second-seeded Red Claws need to win two in a row in Canada to advance to the league championship series.
“When guys see us, they talk about the depth of our team,” said Leslie, a 6-9 swingman from North Carolina State who first played in the D-League for Erie in 2013. “When guys aren’t feeling good, when guys are out hurt, the next line steps up. We’ve got guys who can perform.”
Indeed, the 905 has won 11 in a row despite losing two of its top players to the NBA this month, shot-blocker Edy Tavares (Cleveland) and Axel Toupane (New Orleans). Toupane earned the promotion just after dropping 41 points on Canton in Game 1 of the 905’s first-round sweep of No. 4 Canton.
After the opening tip Sunday, Maine went nearly three minutes without scoring and fell behind 11-3. The Claws never caught up. They trailed by a dozen after one quarter, cut the margin in half by intermission, but immediately lost momentum in the third quarter when the 905 opened with a 6-0 run.
“Against a good defensive team in a game like this, and you’re behind, you’ve got to be efficient with your possessions,” said Red Claws head coach Scott Morrison. “It was a real bad sign that we came out and took three poor shots to start the third quarter.”
A 23-5 run later in the quarter effectively salted away the game for the visitors, who extended their lead to as many as 31 points (102-71) in the fourth quarter.
Abdel Nader, presented with a gold ball in a pre-game ceremony in honor of his being voted Rookie of the Year, missed his first five shots from the field and finished with 14 points on 3-of-16 shooting. He missed all eight 3-point attempts.
“It was just one of those days,” said Nader, who landed hard after an unsuccessful drive early in the first quarter but said the “stinger” in his back didn’t bother him for long. “The first half kind of seemed like we had a lid on the rim. We got the looks we wanted – weakside 3s, corner 3s – they just weren’t falling for us.”
Only one team in the D-League held opponents to an average of fewer than 100 points per game. The Toronto affiliate has been particularly successful south of the border, going 23-4 on the road, including playoffs.
“All of them are long, all about the same size, 6-8 or 6-9 and super athletic,” Nader said.
“They’ve got good length on the perimeter, their bigs are tough and they’ve got guys like (point guard) John Jordan pressuring the ball,” Morrison said. “It’s a perfect storm for defense. Plus, they execute. They’re well-coached. They play hard. All those things put together make their defense the best in the league.”
Pascal Siakam, on assignment from the NBA Raptors, had 22 points on 10-of-16 shooting and nine rebounds. The 905’s bench outscored its starters 69-40, with Brady Heslip (10) and Antwaine Wiggins (13) joining Leslie in double figures.
The Celtics continued their assignment of Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson to the Red Claws. Mickey had 21 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks – all team highs. Jackson had seven points, three assists and three turnovers.
Cameron Ayers was the only Red Claw to make more than one 3-pointer. He finished 3-of-5 from deep and the team as a whole made 8 of 30 (26.7%).
Guerschon “The Dancing Bear” Yabusele played 28 minutes and finished with nine points, four rebounds, one ferocious block and one of Maine’s three technical fouls, all for unsportsmanlike conduct. His was for pounding the basketball in celebration after ripping down a rebound while being fouled.
One bright spot for the Red Claws is their 2-0 record this season in Ontario.
“It definitely should be cause for some optimism,” Morrison said, “or at least cause to not give up. I don’t think anybody in that room wants to go out like tonight.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or