It's hard for a team to win any game in which they allow 123 points and it's probably even more difficult to come out with a victory when scoring just 74 points. Someone would have to run the numbers for me, but if a team manages to do both of those they're not going to come out ahead.
Unfortunately for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, that's precisely what they did in their February 23rd game against the Sioux Falls Skyforce. By the end of the first quarter the Skyforce had already blown it open, taking a 40-18 lead into the second frame. Things never got much closer than that, although the Mad Ants did manage to outscore Sioux Falls 20-17 in the fourth.
Heading into the day tied with the Iowa Energy for the fourth place spot in the D-League's Central Division, the loss (and an Iowa win over Raptors 905), brought Fort Wayne into the basement of the division as the league reaches the home stretch of the regular season.
Though they haven't had an ideal year in terms of the win column, a blowout like this one certainly wasn't expected. Playing a team like Sioux Falls certainly magnified some of the issues that Fort Wayne has as a team, but on the surface the problems that plagued them throughout the game seem to be somewhat correctable and indicate that this loss won't devastate the team for the remainder of the season.
On the offensive end, things got off to a rocky start early on in the game. While the Skyforce are certainly a strong defensive team, the Mad Ants were just incapable of penetrating to the lane or getting any good looks on the inside. For the first portion of the game, it looked like there was an endless loop of passing around the perimeter until someone had to force up a shot.
This was partially a result of the strong game planning done by Dan Craig, as Greg Whittington was often found fronting Rakeem Christmas in the post and successfully denying him the ball. Whittington's efforts on that end played a big role in frustrating the NBA-assignee and completely threw the Fort Wayne offense out of whack. Here, Whittington fronts Christmas and Keith Benson provides help.
In some of these situations of passing the ball around the perimeter it appeared that players on Fort Wayne were unaware of where the shot clock stood, which caused rushed shots or shot clock violations. Those kinds of mental errors can cost teams and it certainly did here. In this particular scenario, there was really no sense of urgency on offense despite the team already trailing by 14 in the first quarter.
In addition to their inability to penetrate early on, there were many instances where they settled for poor jump shots early in the shot clock. These low percentage looks aren't typically desirable at any point in the game, let alone early in the shot clock in a game when you're trailing. With 18 seconds left on the shot clock, center Travis Hyman attempts a spinning jump shot with Benson tightly covering him.
Those types of looks on offense are certainly going to hurt, as were the attempts from their other center, Shayne Whittington. Now in his second year in the D-League, Whittington has attempted to add a three-point shot to his game but it's still very much a work in progress. Despite that, he has been taking over four per game and has hit at a 28% clip. His 2-6 from three-point range in this game actually boosted his season average, but the misses often took the Mad Ants offense out of rhythm.
It wasn't all bad for the Mad Ants offensively, however, as they often found open looks from three-point land as a team. Going 3-27 from deep isn't going to happen all that often, so at least a portion of their loss can just be chalked up to poor shooting and execution rather than a poor strategy coming into the game.
Looks like this are generally going to fall and their ability to generate them is a silver lining for the game on the offensive end.
Defensively, however, there were quite a few more faults to be found. On the perimeter, veteran John Lucas had a tough time keeping up with the fast guards of the Skyforce, namely Briante Weber and Bubu Palo. There were a few cases in which they just blew by him while he was on the ball, but off the ball he was able to be exploited as well.
Things weren't much better in the post, either, as Shayne Whittington and Christmas were not able to contain anything that Benson attempted to do throughout the game. The D-League All-Star was dominant all game long, to the tune of 23 points on 11-13 shooting in just 22 minutes. He and Rodney McGruder, who ended the game +57, seemed like they were hitting everything that they put up.
Their overall team defense wasn't much prettier, unfortunately. They were regularly carved up both in transition and particular in pick-and-roll situations. Sioux Falls was able to run the P&R with little to no resistance throughout the game and Fort Wayne just appeared confused at so many points when defending it.
Cold shooting nights happen and I don't anticipate Fort Wayne to miss as many wide-open three's and layups as they did throughout their game against the Skyforce, but their issues on both sides of the ball are something that need to be addressed.
Offensively, things can't shut down when Christmas isn't getting the ball. Setting stronger picks away from the ball and having backup plans for when their first option isn't available is something that will need to happen as the team moves forward. Defensively, their work against the pick-and-roll, as well as their help defense, could use an improvement.
Being six games out of a playoff spot with just 16 games to go in the season is not a good place to be in, but there's no reason that the Fort Wayne Mad Ants can't use this loss as a learning moment and finish out the season on a high note.