When the Sioux Falls Skyforce opened the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs Tuesday night in Westchester, they had every reason to expect a win. The team that has three starters that should probably be in the NBA, has a D-League All-Star that comes off the bench, and is two-deep at every position, stomped its way through the regular season en route to a D-League-record 40 wins.
But the Skyforce had reason to be terrified, too.
Sioux Falls and Westchester played four times this year. The Knicks won three of them. Keep in mind, the Skyforce only 10 games in the entire regular season.
Especially in these playoffs, where the series are best-of-three, the first game is so crucial. Yes, Sioux Falls has home-court advantage, but no one wants to play facing elimination. Given all of those circumstances, I doubt the Skyforce were thrilled to see they'd open the playoffs on the road against the only team that gave them a challenge this season.
And for the first two minutes of the game, it looked as if the Knicks were going to stump the Skyforce again. Westchester opened on an 8-0 run thanks to 3-pointers by Jimmer Fredette and Thanasis Antetokounmpo and turnovers on two of Sioux Falls' first three possessions.
But from there, it was all Skyforce. Sioux Falls later went on an 18-0 run of their own in the quarter and eventually captured a 109-95 victory that wasn't as close as the score suggests. The Skyforce held Westchester to 43 percent shooting.
As has been custom, it was a total team effort for Sioux Falls. DeAndre Liggins had 14 points, 11 assists, and five boards. Jarnell Stokes had 28 points and 11 rebounds. Five players scored in double figures.
Dan Craig has done an excellent job with this team. Nerves can get to any athlete at any level, from little league to the pros. If the Skyforce were mentally soft, if they didn't have a head coach who knows what he's doing, they could have easily choked on Wednesday given the circumstances. Especially down 8-0 early in the game. But Craig has his team focused and ready to win. That was evident in the beatdown that Sioux Falls gave Westchester.
Game 2 is set for Friday night in Sioux Falls. I would be shocked if the score was any closer than Game 1. The Skyforce are a win away from the Eastern Conference Finals. The team is focused, and the team is hungry.