The D-League's best team skidded into the All-Star break, losing three straight for the first time all season before beating a bad Erie BayHawks team in the final seconds to close out the unofficial first half of the season.
The Sioux Falls Skyforce seemed to take some of that aggression out on the Grand Rapids Drive in the first game after the layoff -- it exploded for 42 first quarter points en route to a 108-100 road win.
But after that game, it appeared as if things were once again taking a turn for the worst. The Miami Heat, with which the Skyforce are exclusively affiliated, traded forward Jarnell Stokes at the NBA trade deadline, and the Skyforce waived starting point guard Tre Kelley so he could sign with a team overseas. Stokes was absolutely dominant for Sioux Falls during 16 games across five assignments, and his performance earned him a selection to the D-League All-Star game. Meanwhile, Kelley had started all 29 games with Sioux Falls and was second on the team in scoring and assists. More, he was the bonafide leader in that locker room.
But as has been the case all season when faced with turmoil, head coach Dan Craig has brought his team through the fire.
The Skyforce responded to Kelley's departure with a convincing weekend doubleheader sweep of the BayHawks, outscoring Erie 53-24 over the final 20:29 of Friday's win before blowing them out by 20 a day later.
Now, I'm sure you're screaming at your computer scream that I'm an idiot for saying Sioux Falls is already over the loss of arguably its two most important players because they beat a bad team twice. But it's more than that.
Bubu Palo is filling in for Kelley nicely. He's averaging 18.4 points on 46.7 percent shooting over his last nine games with 4.3 assists. That figure may seem low, but in the two games since Kelley's departure, he posted 15 total.
Briante Weber has also elevated his game of lately. He's been a miniature DeAndre Liggins over the last few games, absolutely stuffing the stat sheet.
He had 17 points, six boards, four assists, and two steals on Saturday. In his last seven games he's averaging 5.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.6 steals. He's playing outstanding defense, and had he not missed much of the season recovering from a severe knee injury sustained during his senior year at VCU, he'd be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
Finally, while Keith Benson may not be able to score effortlessly or tear apart a double team like Stokes, the drop off is not as big as one might seem -- don't forget that Benson was an All-Star this year. Benson scored 15 points to go with 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals Friday night. Saturday, he scored a career-high 32 on 71 percent shooting with seven rebounds. As he grows into his new role and as he gains confidence, his game will come more smoothly, and Skyforce fans will soon forget Stokes.
Craig has proven time and again that his team can and will overcome any obstacle it faces. With the "next-man-up" philosophy he employs, losing Kelley and Stokes may not be as devastating as originally seemed.