FORT WAYNE – Not many regular-season games in the Mad Ants’ history have deserved a lot of hype, but this is an exception.
Tonight at Memorial Coliseum, the Mad Ants (27-15) play host to the Los Angeles D-Fenders (25-15).
Not only are they two of the top three title contenders – only Rio Grande Valley (28-13) has a better record – but they have both been terrific lately.
Fort Wayne has won six of its last seven games and 10 of 12. Los Angeles has won five in a row.
And they have two very different styles of play.
Los Angeles averages 120.7 points per game, second only to Rio Grande Valley’s 123.6, while Fort Wayne ranks sixth with 107.4 per game. Defensively, Fort Wayne allows 104.4 points per game, fourth best in the D-League, while Los Angeles’ defense ranks next-to-last with 115.8 points against per game.
“L.A. is the hottest team coming in and plays a similar style to RGV, which is they are just an offensive juggernaut coming at you with a lot of 3s,” said coach Conner Henry, whose Mad Ants have been to the playoffs only once and had never before been 12 games over .500.
“(The D-Fenders) want to go up and down on you at a high pace and score 130 points a game. We’re not that team. That’s not the way we’re built structurally. But we need to prove to ourselves that we can play a team like that, which is going to make the playoffs. And that we can beat a team like that.”
To add to the intrigue, Henry was an assistant coach with the D-Fenders from 2011 to 2013, helping them to a league-record 38 victories in his first season there. Most of the Los Angeles personnel remain, except for star Manny Harris and including head coach Bob MacKinnon.
The D-Fenders are led by Ryan Kelly’s 25.2 points per game, Terrance Williams’ 21.3 and the 19.8 of Shawne Williams, who was selected as the D-League’s Performer of the Week on Monday.
The D-Fenders try to play the up-tempo style of their parent club, the Los Angeles Lakers, and their coach, Mike D’Antoni.
“We’ve watched film and seen them on their rise over the last seven or eight games. It’s just a very free flowing D’Antoni offense,” Henry said. “Guys aren’t supposed to hold it longer than a couple seconds.”
They have attempted 1,372 shots from 3-point range, second only to Rio Grande Valley’s 1,826, and the D-Fenders have made 37.2 percent of those shots. Fort Wayne has made 35.6 percent of its 3-pointers but attempted only 828, fourth fewest in the D-League.
“You have to be really good on your pick-and-roll defense and really know your personnel,” Henry said. “And you have to know who’s a really good shooter (for Los Angeles) and who’s not a great shooter and then play them accordingly. It’s going to be a really great challenge.”
Fort Wayne’s Ron Howard is averaging 20.7 points per game with Tony Mitchell at 19.7 and Jamaal Franklin 18.