The Mad Ants may have gotten off to a dismal start – the worst in franchise history – but there's renewed optimism about the team as it's three games back of the Eastern Conference's sixth and final playoff spot.
The Mad Ants (11-14) are at the midway point of the 50-game season and, starting at 7 p.m. today at Memorial Coliseum against the Greensboro Swarm (4-20), there's plenty of time left to qualify for the postseason.
“I obviously didn't like the way that we started,” said coach Steve Gansey, whose team lost its first six games and nine of its first 11. “But we've responded, having five wins in a row and kind of going back-and-forth. If you have your record at least around .500 going into those last 15 games, and make that push where you've got to win five out of seven, you have to be able to do that or else you're not going to get into the playoffs.
“We've just got to keep going one game at a time, bringing as much energy and effort as we can, and be playing smart every night.”
The Mad Ants have won eight of their last 12 games, including victories over Capital City and Long Island in their last two, and this run coincided with the return of Ben Moore, who had been playing in Turkey.
Moore, who has averaged 12.8 points and 11.2 rebounds, is a high-energy player who causes opposing teams fits with his defense and athleticism around the boards.
But Fort Wayne's overall defensive intensity has improved, as has the Mad Ants' ability to go for the jugular in the fourth quarter of games.
“We've been in a lot of close games and certain situations haven't gone our way, but we've learned from them,” said Walt Lemon Jr., who is averaging 19.8 points, 5.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds. “Especially at home, we really want to put our foot on a team's neck – especially if you've got that lead. Other teams would do it to us, so when you've got the lead like that ... we want to put our foot down and extend that lead.”
Here's a look at the good, and the bad, that have gotten the Mad Ants to this point:
The good news
• The Indiana Pacers have sent a decent amount of help: Goga Bitadze for three games, Alize Johnson for seven, Edmond Sumner for one and JaKarr Sampson for one. When the NBA players are down, Fort Wayne has shown moments of dominance, especially in rebounding. Bitadze has averaged 21.7 points and 16 rebounds, Johnson 23.3 points and 15.4 rebounds.
The best news is the Mad Ants aren't as reliant on the Pacers' assignments as they were even a couple weeks ago; they've learned how to win on their own.
• The acquisition last week of Daxter Miles Jr. from Northern Arizona for Ike Nwamu looks as if it'll pay off. Miles has averaged 16.3 points in three games. “Dax has been great,” Gansey said. “First his defensive intensity; he's getting up there and pressuring the ball, not fouling. Moving his feet, he's tough. And his ability to get to the basket also helps.”
• Brian Bowen II, only 21, has steadily improved, despite myriad injuries, and he's averaging 14.5 points and 7.6 rebounds. A similar curve of improvement has been shown by JaKeenan Gant, who has averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds, and will be a critical big man as the season progresses.
• D.J. McCall, a Fort Wayne native, has averaged only 12.6 minutes in 19 games as a rookie, but his energy is contagious and the coaches have a great deal of trust in him. He's averaging only 1.5 points and 2.2 rebounds, but he's got good potential as a defensive stalwart.
The bad news
• After spending their first-round pick in the G League draft on Hasheem Thabeet, the 32-year-old center who went second overall in the 2009 draft, he almost never played and was released Thursday night. He'd been in nine games and averaged 4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 shot blocks and 16.5 minutes. While the G League draft can be a crapshoot, Thabeet was a misfire.
• The Mad Ants have dealt with their share of injuries, but losing Naz Mitrou-Long, arguably their best player, has been the biggest blow. He's out with an ankle injury and has played in only eight games, averaging 17.9 points, 9.1 assists and 7.8 rebounds, though he could return in the coming couple weeks. When healthy, Mitrou-Long and Lemon are one of the best guard combinations in the G League.
• Attendance has been abysmal. The Mad Ants rank 17th in average announced attendance – 1,776 – and several games have had numbers in the hundreds. It's a likely product of the team's on-court woes, ineffective marketing and having 5 of 14 Coliseum games on Mondays or Tuesdays.