By Brian Kotloff, NBADLeague.com
EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. — The Sioux Falls Skyforce have already made history this season. On Sunday, they moved closer to capping the NBA D-League’s most dominant season with a championship.
Keyed by guard Rodney McGruder’s 30 points, the ‘Force outlasted the Los Angeles D-Fenders, 104-99, at the Toyota Sports Center in Game 1 of the NBA D-League Finals. The best-of-three series shifts to Sioux Falls, S.D., on Tuesday night (8 PM ET, ESPNU), when the Skyforce — the Miami Heat’s affiliate — look to wrap up their first title in 10 seasons in the Development League.
Tuesday will also be their first opportunity to close the books on a record-breaking year. With the Game 1 win, the Skyforce improved to 45-10 this season, including a record 40-10 during the regular season and 6-0 in the playoffs. They’ve won 16 of their last 18 games.
That run has been built largely on the league’s No. 1-ranked defense, but a high-powered L.A. team caused Sioux Falls problems until the final four minutes. D-Fenders star Vander Blue led the charge with 31 points, while veteran forwards Ryan Gomes and Justin Harper combined for 45.
“This [D-Fenders] team — they play a much different style,” said Skyforce forward and 2016 NBA D-League MVP Jarnell Stokes. “It just reminds me of a West Coast type of vibe. I really wasn’t used to that. Our coverages weren’t as sharp.”
With their defense unusually leaky, the Skyforce relied on the other quality that’s carried them this far: depth. They won the bench scoring battle, 25-2, and despite 21 turnovers showcased one of the league’s most well-balanced offenses.
On Sunday, it was McGruder’s turn to step up. The quiet shooting guard, who has been the Skyforce’s most consistent player this season, shot a cool 12-of-18 from the floor and 4-of-9 from three-point range.
“He did? 30 today?” Stokes said when informed that McGruder, who Sioux Falls coaches say scored his 15.8 points per game while hardly having a play called for him, scored 30 points.
“I know it’s money if he’s open,” Stokes added.
McGruder delivered several clutch shots, the last and biggest of which turned a one-point lead into a four-point lead with 3:37 remaining. “Coach [Dan Craig] believes in me and my teammates believe in me,” McGruder said of his third 30-point game of the playoffs (after just two in the regular season).
“Down the stretch, we were able to get stops. Gotta give props to Coach because we play three-minute games in practice and that’s basically what we did down the stretch, executing a three-minute game.”
Though he and his team took another step in their stellar season, McGruder was quick to look ahead to Tuesday night’s Game 2. “I’m not satisfied yet,” he said, “because we still need one more win.”