Five teams, three playoff spots. It’s exciting to watch. It must be maddening if, as in the Florida Flame’s case, you’re in the middle of it.
The Flame are part of a five-team battle royal for the last three of the four NBA Development League playoff positions. All five of those teams sit within a half-game of each other and, with eight games remaining, the pressure to perform is greater than ever.
Before Friday’s Flame-Roanoke Dazzle matchup, Florida, Roanoke, Austin and Arkansas all were tied for second, four games back of league-leading Fort Worth. Albuquerque is just a half-game behind that foursome.
A month ago, the Flame were in Fort Worth’s position, atop the D-League and rolling along.
“We were 21-10 at one time, rolling along,” Florida coach Jeff Malone said. “Then, boom, it hit.”
Leading scorer Bracey Wright missed most of March with a stress fracture in his right foot and saw his first action Friday. Leading rebounder Dwayne Jones was called back to the Boston Celtics. Starting point guard Andre Barrett signed two 10-day contracts with the Phoenix Suns and another with the Toronto Raptors. Starting forward Theron Smith had knee problems so severe, he was released. That contributed to a serious slide — nine losses in 10 games — that put the Flame in their current position.
Yet, Malone looked at the bright side.
“We’re talking about holding on to second place and we lost nine of 10,” he said.
And Malone knows what it will take to hang on to that important No. 2 spot. The top two of the four seeds host the first round of the playoffs, though Malone wondered if some of his younger players realize their situation.
“My goal in the next eight games is to try to go 4-4 or 5-3 and stay in playoff hunt,” Malone said. “I don’t think some of the young players know where we are. I don’t know if they look at standings.”
Wright is looking and said he’s confident the Flame have a hot streak left in them.
“I think we can get back there,” Wright said. “And even if we don’t get all the way back to first place, we can solidify second place if we play well.”
Malone said it will take the guys who started the year as role players to become comfortable with their new roles, plus a little luck around them. They have received a little luck with Wright’s return. He averages 21.8 points per game, second-best in the D-League.
Stress fractures are tough to get over, but any Bracey Wright is better than none at all.
Wright said it’s just a case of his teammates just getting comfortable again, period.
“All everybody needs to do is play within themselves,” Wright said. “A lot of guys have been playing outside themselves, trying to do things they can’t. If everyone relaxes and plays within themselves, we’ll be all right.”
Malone still is looking for a little motivation for his charges. He thinks tapping into an underdog spirit might be the trick to getting the Flame over the hump in the home stretch.
“Look at Rudy, Seabiscuit or Rocky,” he said. “I used that when I talked to the guys. I said let’s try to be special, go out and be something special. Go out and be Rudy. Make a story out of it.”