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Journey to the D-League, Part 4: The game

03.26.10 at 9:16 am ET

(Editor’s note: Paul Flannery recently spent some time with the NBA Development League’s Main Red Claws, who are affiliated with the Celtics. He documented his observations about the organization, the players and the fans, who regularly fill to capacity the team’s home arena. Here’s the final part of his four-part series.)

Part 3: The players
Part 2: The Red Claws
Part 1: The ‘D’

PORTLAND, Maine ‘€” It’€™s an hour and a half before tipoff, and the scene inside the Expo already is humming. A few early arriving fans already are lined up to get inside for ‘€™70s Night, and Blondie’€™s ‘€œHeart of Glass’€ is playing.

Jana Spaulding, the Red Claws’€™ able and efficient PR person, already is busy at work, as are the other members of the team’€™s office staff, including Cam Twiss, son of longtime Celtics PR honcho Jeff Twiss. The training and development in the D-League doesn’€™t end with the team. One of the Red Claws dancers has earned a tryout with the Patriots cheerleaders, which is a point of pride for everyone.

‘€œThat’€™s what we do,’€ said Jon Jennings, the team’€™s president and general manager. ‘€œWe develop front office people. We develop players. We develop a dance team.’€

The team’€™s operation staff is getting ready to put on a show for the sellout crowd. Every break in the action will feature the usual array of distractions from the dance team to an overly exuberant MC leading kids activities and disco contests.

But in an admirable bit of minor league restraint, it will not come at the expense of the evening’€™s main attraction: a showdown between the Iowa Energy and the Maine Red Claws. The Energy have the best record in the D-League. They also have one of the most stable rosters, but they recently lost Othyus Jeffers to the Utah Jazz, and he was a key component to their success.

The Energy have former NBA center Earl Barron in the middle and onetime Bobcat Cartier Martin on the wing. They also have only one true point guard, a hard-nosed player from Chicago named Curtis Stinson, and Red Claws coach Austin Ainge plans to try to force him to be a scorer. Stinson will wind up playing all but 36 seconds of this game and will take 21 shots, but he’€™ll score 25 points and hand out 10 assists. Nobody said it was going to easy.

Or maybe it will. The Red Claws race to a 16-5 lead, and that forces Iowa coach Nick Nurse to insert three subs ‘€” Shy Ely, Mark Tyndale and Marvin Phillips. The trio immediately changes the game. A full-court press generates six quick points and the run continues through a timeout as Iowa takes a 17-16 lead on a Phillips dunk. Both teams are settling in for a long night.

Ainge plays his second unit mostly intact, which brings the first appearance for Marcus Landry to start the second quarter. It’€™s only his second game for Maine, and he’€™s eager to get on the court and prove himself. In a way he already has. A small Celtics patch on the back of his uniform signifies that Landry is an NBA player, here on assignment.

In the first few minutes, however, he looks lost. Whether it’€™s rust or adjusting to his new teammates on the defensive end, Landry wears an incredulous look on his face after a blown defensive assignment.

It’€™s not just Landry who struggles. Seven-footer Kurt Looby is having a hard time catching passes. Maurice Ager and Paul Davis can’€™t get anything to fall from the outside and Morris Almond, an 82 percent free throw shooter, inexplicably misses three of his seven shots from the line.

Tyndale, meanwhile, has 12 points simply by moving without the ball and getting in the way of passing lanes, while Stinson is 6-for-9 from the field as Iowa opens up a nine-point lead. The Energy have outscored Maine 30-13 since Nurse went to his bench.

By making Stinson work on offense, however, it leaves him vulnerable on the defensive end, and backup point guard Terrell Harris is able to break him down and get in the lane at will. Harris keeps the Red Claws in the game by scoring all 13 of his points in the first half.

After a slow start, Landry also has picked up his game. It’€™s obvious that he is comfortable in the post, where he is equally adept at passing out of double teams and using his balance and footwork to throw off his defender. Time and again he backs his man down, only to subtly shift his weight and create space for him to shoot. Landry can play down there.

The other development is the officials. As Maine begins to build a sizable edge at the free throw line, Nurse is incredulous.

‘€œIt’€™s 11-1 [in fouls],’€ Nurse yells to the one of the officials, and while his math is a little off, it’€™s clear Maine is getting the benefit of the whistles. Nurse keeps it up and gets a technical for his trouble.

‘€œDo you want to stick around for the second half,’€ a fan asks from the fifth row.

Without missing a beat, Nurse barely turns and says, ‘€œProbably not.’€

That gets an appreciative laugh from the crowd. The fans are at least empathetic, if not totally on his side.

At the half, both teams are shooting over 50 percent and Maine has a 57-54 lead thanks to an 18-9 edge in attempts at the line. Stinson has scored 13 points and Barron is dominating inside with 11 points and nine rebounds. It’€™s a fleeting edge, and Ainge knows he has try to something else in the second half.

While he plans, the Amazing Christopher performs his halftime act. Dressed as the Indian from the Village People, Christopher does his routine with the aid of puppets on sticks that are made up to look like the rest of the gang. It really needs to be seen to be believed, and the audience certainly is appreciative of his shtick, giving him a huge ovation as he and his stick-figure friends exit the court.

The second half begins with what can only be described as the derisive stereotype of D-League ball. Quick shots and little or no ball movement are the order of the day as each player tries to get his all at once.

The brief, unwelcome interlude passes quickly, however, and midway through the third quarter Ainge makes his key adjustment. He drops Looby into the back of a zone where, freed from man-to-man responsibilities, he simply can block everything he sees.

Looby may be raw, but the former soccer player from Antigua is athletic and he is long. He also can attack the offensive glass, which leads to easy dunks that get the crowd fired up. Asked about Looby later, Ainge says that while the player picks everything up quickly, he’€™s just not that skilled. Everyone’€™s here for a reason, but 7 feet is 7 feet, and Looby is wreaking havoc on the interior.

Billy Thomas, he of the ankle injury and the up-and-down season, is having a rough night. He turns it over three times and his shot is off. When he finally does get one to drop, it’€™s a long two-pointer instead of a 3 as he intended. Thomas looks back at the line and shakes his head. It’€™s been a tough year.

The Red Claws will take the points any way they can get them, and late in the quarter the lead is back up to 75-64. This is when an Iowa player named Shy Ely begins to get hot.

A four-year player at Evansville, Ely plays only about 11 minutes a night, and he’€™ll need to develop some point guard skills if he is going to play in the NBA. But on this night he turns into Eddie House and makes everything in sight. He converts a pair of three-point plays at the end of the quarter and brings Iowa within five to start the final 12 minutes.

The tension inside the Expo is palpable as the dancers do their routine between quarters. Whatever drew the sellout crowd here tonight, the game has become the focal point, and they rise and fall with each ebb and flow. Right now, the Red Claws are falling.

Ainge brings Davis back in for Looby, but he still can’€™t get himself going. The turnovers mount and Ely simply can’€™t miss. He and Stinson have completely taken over the game, and after Stinson drives to the basket and makes a layup and gets fouled, the Energy have an 86-82 lead. Ainge wanted to make Stinson a scorer, and he is happy to oblige.

But an interesting development has taken place. Almond and Ager, the Red Claws’€™ two former No. 1 draft picks, actually play well together despite both being scoring wings. Almond is particularly good at running his man up toward the ball and then cutting back door, and Ager is a willing distributor. The two connect on a three-point play and Maine retakes the lead with about five minutes left.

Davis finally gets a jump shot to fall, and after Almond goes flying into the stands to save a possession, the Red Claws have a 90-86 lead. Ager, who has been content to lay back for most of the game, asserts himself at just the right time with a 3-pointer, and he scores seven straight points to push the lead up to nine.

It’€™s taken 44 minutes, but Stinson is worn out. Ely finally misses a shot, and the Red Claws put the finishing touches on a 106-96 victory. Afterward, Ainge is excited. This was a playoff kind of game and his team responded, despite turning it over 18 times. ‘€œToo many turnovers,’€ he says, but then his face brightens as he recalls the last 2-1/2 hours. ‘€œThis was earned.’€

Almond finishes with 21 points on just 13 shots and 16 rebounds, which prompts Ainge to point out that Almond is not ‘€œa high-volume shooter.’€ The rehabilitation of his image continues.

Looby blocks five shots and point guard Russell Robinson finishes with a tidy line of 18 points, five assists and one turnover. He and Harris battled Stinson for all 48 minutes and wound up outscoring him, 33-25. Ainge’€™s strategy has paid off.

Already, thoughts turn to Sunday’€™s rematch. D-League teams typically get in a quick set of games when they travel, and the two will play again in less than 48 hours. The operations staff is a little worried about the storm that is quickly moving up the coast. The roof in Section 4 has been known to leak a little.

The Expo is unavailable tomorrow and practice is at 10 a.m. sharp at Portland High School. It’€™s the third different location at which the Red Claws will gather during the past three days. This is an unusual occurrence, it is explained repeatedly.

The players merely shrug at the inconvenience. If anyone who matters saw them tonight, they witnessed both good and bad moments from everyone involved. But overall the good more than outweighed the bad. Maybe it will be enough to pique someone’€™s interest. Maybe not.

Outside, the shuttle bus is waiting to take them home. It’€™s just another night in the D.

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