Last night the Portland Expo crowd watched as their new team notched a gutsy win over the Tulsa 66ers. It was the sort of performance that Celtics fans will recognize, as it featured an anemic first half followed by an impressive second half. It was, by far, the most exciting game of the season, at home or on the road. With the way the Maine Red Claws played in the first half other fans might have fled. Instead, the dedicated Maine basketball fans stuck it out, and saw the Claws come back from a 17-point halftime deficit to win the game.
The Red Claws were barely present in the early going – it was the worst half of basketball in team history. The 4-4 Tulsa 66ers (wholly-owned affiliate of the Oklahoma City Thunder) were running all over the home team, sinking almost every three-pointer and driving with ease as well. The Claws, meanwhile, were missing not only from downtown, but easy layups and rebounds eluded them. This game was a good test of the team, as they defeated Erie Saturday and arrived home to Portland early Sunday morning.
In the first half, the Claws were flunking that test.
Then the boys in white roared back in the third quarter. They didn’t really go on any impressive runs, but by the five-minute mark they’d whittled the deficit down to just eight points, and by the start of the fourth it was a three-point game. The third-quarter team was the virtual opposite of the first-half team, and that continued in the fourth. Finally, near the end of the fourth Maine took the lead on an Anthony Terrell tip shot and never looked back, thrilling Mainers with an impressive finish.
Frankly, it would have been satisfying to see the team lose only by eight points or so instead of twenty or thirty. Instead, the sold-out Expo saw a remarkable turnaround. The truly interesting thing about this game, though, was that no one player led the team in the comeback. As usual, the Claws had balanced scoring with different players contributing. This time it was Will Blalock and Darnell Lazare leading the way. Lazare, in fact, was 2 rebounds away from a double-double.
Bill Walker was largely absent from this game at the offensive end. He scored only 6 points in 28 minutes and was the only starter not to reach double digits. In fact, this was the fourth game in a row in which Walker did not lead the Red Claws in scoring. One more of these games and he won’t be leading the team in scoring either, though he is by far the leader in rebounds, reflecting his skillset as a defensive (rather than offensive) juggernaut.
This sort of hard-fought victory usually is a sign of a good coaching too, and this game was no exception. Indeed, with such balanced scoring, it reflects very well on Austin Ainge’s coaching ability – in case the 5-1 start hadn’t convinced you yet. Ainge is acquitting himself well so far as Head Coach, proving that Jon Jennings made an astute hire. Far from the usual expansion experience, the Maine Red Claws are a top-notch team.
The Red Claws’ success will also create a better experience for the NBA assignees. Instead of carrying the team on their back, they can focus on improving their skills. Just as in the NBA, having a balanced team that’s really a team – not a collection of players – makes life easier for everyone. Celtics and Bobcats fans should join Mainers in being pleased with the new team’s success.
NOTES: G Mario West was out with an anterior ligament strain and is day-to-day….this was the Claws’ fifth straight win and the second straight home sellout…the next home game is Sat., Dec. 19, vs. Fort Wayne Mad Ants at 7:30PM.