March 31, 2011

Claws handled ups and downs

Maine will play its final home game tonight, missing the playoffs but still attracting crowds.

The Maine Red Claws will play their final home game tonight, wrapping up their second NBA Development League season without a postseason berth.

Maine, which is 17-31 with two games left, was a young team that lacked the right on-court chemistry.

Every game sold out for a second straight year, characterizing the business end of the franchise as a success. But losses left players and fans disappointed.

"I'm really proud of the way the players have continued to play hard to the end," said General Manager Jon Jennings from a seat in the stands at the Portland Expo this week at a practice. "But as long as you keep score in sports, you want to win. So it has certainly been disappointing in that regard."

Jennings said a top-to-bottom evaluation will commence when the season ends.

"We're evaluating everything. The whole organization from where we are and need to go," said Jennings. "If your goal isn't excellence, there isn't any point in doing any of this. I learned that long ago."

The Red Claws can point to a slew of factors for their shortcomings.

The team did lose two key big men early to injuries -- Stephane Lasme and Magnum Rolle -- and was forced to make a variety of changes along the way to remain competitive.

A guard-heavy draft also didn't give Maine the depth it would need. And the team's youth meant constant growing on the court. At one point four of the starting five were rookies.

Maine won just four games in January, two in February, and three in March heading into tonight's 7 p.m. home finale against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

"There were growing pains," said Jamar Smith, who was converted from a shooting guard to point guard. "Our consistency wasn't where it should have been. And that goes to making the right reads, screens, passes, finding a good shot and valuing the ball. We had a lot of turnovers this year."

Coach Austin Ainge said he will sit down with Jennings at the end of the season to discuss his future. He is on a standard one-year D-League coaching contract that was renewed last May.

"You have some regrets," he said. "My biggest is I wish I held Lasme and Rolle out of training camp so they wouldn't get hurt. And as a coach I demonize myself every time we lose over moves made.

"But I loved it here. I think this is the best team (to be a part of) in the D-League."

Maine's struggles were pronounced on the road. It went just 4-20 away from the Portland Expo.

The first-, third- and fifth-highest margins of defeat in the league this season all belonged to the Red Claws.

Maine lost by 49 points at Erie, Pa., on Dec. 10; by 44 points at Rio Grande Valley, Texas, on Jan. 19; and by 42 points at Dakota on Feb. 5.

"A couple of players weren't mentally tough enough," said Ainge. "And we tried to get rid of them. They just didn't have the mental toughness."

"You've got to put it together," said Antonio Anderson, a late addition who added a veteran presence. "I wasn't here at the beginning. Guys play hard but you've got to learn how to do it on a consistent basis. Some games we just weren't ready."

There were bright spots.

Maine picked up DeShawn Sims, a former star at Michigan, who appears a shoe-in for the league's Rookie of the Year award. He was consistently Maine's best player, averaging a team-leading 19.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

"Our team chemistry off the court was great," said Sims. "But if we could have jelled a little earlier on the court it would have helped. I know it's late now, but I think we've grown to respect each other."

"I think he's hands-down the best rookie," said Ainge. "I don't think anyone comes even close. You look at consistency, rebounding, total points, and he's done it every night."

Lasme and Rolle returned to the court earlier than expected, and re-established themselves as NBA prospects along with Sims and Smith.

Beyond the team's shortcomings, said players and team staff, playing in front of a packed house every night at home went a long way.

"Our fans are the best. Every coach who comes in here knows that," said Jennings. "I hear that stuff all the time."

 

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

jmenendez@pressherald.com

 

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