The D-League Finals begin Sunday at 5 pm eastern, with the #2-ranked Rio Grande Valley Vipers facing the #8-ranked Tulsa 66ers. Because we have a few days before they begin, Scott and I have several preview posts planned to discuss who exactly these teams are and how they got here. Up first: a look at the regular-season meetings between these two teams.
The Vipers and 66ers played six games during the 2009-2010 regular season, with three home games apiece. Rio Grande Valley was 4-2 in those meetings, with a net of +14 points. There was a blowout on each side, but most of the games had four- or five-point margins.
If I were to draw any conclusions from these games, three things stand out:
1.) Rebounding - RGV typically dominated the boards in these contests, thanks to the work of Joey Dorsey, Kurt Looby and Mike Harris. The first two no longer play for the Vipers, so the opportunity is there for Tulsa at least to compete in that area. Latavious Williams was the second-best per-minute rebounder in the regular season, and has been in the playoffs. The best in that category, Rod Benson, is no longer playing, so Williams is really the best per-minute rebounder in the finals. Not bad for a rookie right out of high school. He can't do it alone, though, and DeVon Hardin likely will have to start contributing on the boards.
2.) Three-point shooting - Almost none of these games featured both teams shooting well, partially because they were played in pairs of back-to-backs, and they were tired in the second games. Still, neither team can afford to fall behind too much, and so guys like Ernest Scott or Moses Ehambe can't go 1-7 from outside if they want their respective teams to win.
3.) Turnovers - Tulsa's reliable point guard Mustafa Shakur was called up to the Thunder recently, and so they've been relying on Wink Adams and JaJuan Smith to handle the ball, with some assistance from Larry Owens. The Vipers have three guys who can handle the ball in Will Conroy, Antonio Anderson and Jonathan Wallace, but RGV's turnovers in their games against Tulsa were typically higher than they have been thus far in the playoffs. Whether the Vipers turn it over at their playoff rate or their "vs. Tulsa" rate will be something to watch.
Individual game breakdowns follow below the jump.
December 4: Rio Grande Valley Vipers 104, Tulsa 66ers 100
Tulsa blew a bunch of layups in the third quarter of this game, and got poor shooting from their big men (Byron Myllens was 9-21, DeVon Hardin was 2-8). As will be the case with most of these games, the 66ers relied on several players who aren't around anymore. Mustafa Shakur had a great game (24 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, four steals), and he's in Oklahoma City now. Keith Clark was getting minutes off the bench, and he was traded mid-season.
For Rio Grande Valley's part, the Vipers were able to out-rebound Tulsa behind 20 combined boards from Joey Dorsey and Kurt Looby, neither of whom are with RGV now. This will be one area to watch in the finals, because even without those two players, the Vipers still have several very good rebounders (Mike Harris, Antonio Anderson) to counteract the 66ers' Latavious Williams, who was a DNP in this game.
December 5: Rio Grande Valley Vipers 94, Tulsa 66ers 89
Not only was this the second game of a back-to-back, the teams also traveled from Hidalgo to Tulsa to play it. The 66ers actually outrebounded the Vipers 44-36, but then turned around and shot 2-12 from outside. Joey Dorsey had 12 points and 12 rebounds, although again, the 66ers won't have to worry about him this time around. They also won't have to worry about the 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists from Garrett Temple, who is now with the Spurs.
Tulsa got next to no contributions from their bench (14 points between six players), including cold nights from Cecil Brown and Marcus Lewis. Players like Lewis, Latavious Williams and Moses Ehambe (who started this game but comes off the bench now) have been playing better lately, so Tulsa's bench isn't quite as big of a question.
December 18: Tulsa 66ers 108, Rio Grande Valley Vipers 90
Yet another poor outside shooting night for the Vipers (5-22), but this time Tulsa was able to take advantage of it. Larry Owens was fantastic in this game, with 27 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals. Cecil Brown also was big, with 22 points and 4-7 three-point shooting, but this was back when he was starting. Encouraging for the 66ers should be that their starting center in the last playoff series, Marcus Lewis, was pretty solid coming off the bench in this game. Lewis had nine points on 4-5 shooting and six rebounds in 19 minutes. Deron Washington, on the other hand, was pretty terrible, shooting 0-7, missing three out of four free throws and picking up five fouls in 18 minutes. Washington has honed his game a little bit since December (or at least focused on the one thing he's good at), so I don't expect to see another performance like this from him.
December 19: Tulsa 66ers 94, Rio Grande Valley Vipers 89
Another back-to-back, and an extremely poor outside shooting night for Rio Grande Valley (3-22). They also were almost as bad from the free-throw line (14-26), relatively speaking. Mike Harris put up 30 shots in this game, and while he scored 35 points, 30 shots is...a lot. He didn't take too many threes I guess, just four, but he missed all of them so that doesn't help. DeVon Hardin was somewhat of a factor in this game, with 10 rebounds and four blocks in 27 minutes, though he also had four turnovers and four fouls and wasn't great offensively. I haven't been Hardin's biggest supporter this year, and he's had a fairly quiet post-season so far, but he's athletic enough to play at the Vipers' preferred pace and has a height advantage over guys like Julian Sensley. He just needs to make sure he doesn't try to block every three-pointer and take himself out of the play. He's gotten a little better over the course of the season, but RGV probably can exploit his overeagerness through pump fakes and good ball movement.
Will Conroy was fantastic in this game, with a 14-11-10 triple-double. Mike Harris shot 16 free throws on his way to 44 points along with 12 rebounds. Jonathan Wallace was 4-6 from outside. So, you know, it was a blowout. One of the bright spots for Tulsa in this game is that Moses Ehambe went off, with 26 points on 16 shots. Latavious Williams had 10 points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes, so that's also good. Aside from him, though, Tulsa's big men struggled to rebound, as Marcus Lewis and DeVon Hardin combined for just four. Deron Washington showed his late-season ability to get to the free-throw line with 7-9 shooting from the stripe, which probably will continue in the finals.
The Vipers got a dominant performance from Mike Harris in this game, with 36 points on 12-18 shooting and 18 rebounds. They also got 15 assists from Will Conroy, although he needed 15 shots to score 15 points. RGV fell apart in the third quarter, scoring just 17 points in that period. Looking back, Conroy apparently blew a bunch of layups while the rest of the team settled for jumpers.
Larry Owens had probably his best game of this regular season series, with 34 points on 11-18 shooting and a team-high nine assists. He also shot 12 free throws, the most he did all season. Owens doesn't get to the line a ton because he shoots a lot of jumpers (which he's good at so it's kind of okay), but he's been going down into the post a little more during the post-season, so he could draw some fouls that way.