After 5 ½ seasons in the NBA Development League, you'd think at some point the Fort Wayne Mad Ants would figure out how to win.
I think that point is finally here.
Now, I'm a little worried about declaring that too soon. This franchise has always found a way to take one step forward and 4-6 steps back. Facts being facts, the Ants' record is still a humble 13-14 after their 115-109 win over Maine on Thursday at Memorial Coliseum.
But I can say with certainty this team brings more effort night after night than any lineup in franchise history.
Remember, they started 3-10 before Ants president Jeff Potter, along with coach Duane Ticknor, pulled the trigger on moves that brought Luke Harangody, Anthony Richardson and Anthony Harris to town.
Knocking off Maine, which is tied for first in the East Division, was big win. It was bigger in finding out how the Ants would react to some road success upon returning home. It was bigger still because Ron Howard remains out with a knee injury for an indefinite period.
“I was a little worried how we'd come out,” Ticknor said. “A lot of times after a long road trip, that first game back home you seem to struggle a little bit. We really stressed this week that just because you're home, you couldn't play with a lack of urgency.
“From the middle of the third quarter on, I thought we really played good basketball.”
Urgency is a good word to pause upon. Urgency can be a tough attribute to harness in the D-League, where the money's not so great and the travel is all kinds of tiring. Urgency has been one of the rarest of qualities in the Mad Ants over the years.
Ticknor seems to have fixed that.
He's fixed it with his style of play. He's hard-driving, no-nonsense and fair. He's also fixed it with the players he's brought in.
Those who knew Harangody from his Notre Dame days expected him to do what he's been doing – play like a linebacker or fullback in basketball shorts. His numbers Thursday were typical: 29 points, 13 rebounds and a handful of dirty looks from opposing players.
But it's players like Harris, a point guard Ticknor knew from his days in Sioux Falls, that have also pushed the team forward.
With Howard out, Harris is the team's starting and finishing point guard. Tony Mitchell spells him on occasion, or at least takes over some ball-handling on a possession or two, but Harris rarely leaves the floor.
He played 47 minutes, 18 seconds Thursday, dished out 17 assists to two turnovers, scored 15 points and even blocked a couple shots. Late in the game, when he should have been fatigued, he drove the lane and threw down a monstrous dunk.
(If urgency can occasionally be measured in dunks, the Mad Ants put up some big numbers there, too. Suffice it to say Mitchell and Sadiel Rojas can rise and deliver when they see an opening.)
This is as unselfish a roster as the Ants have assembled, too. Harris' teammates nearly matched him, combining for 14 assists. Six players scored in double figures. Shooting guard Darryl Partin was hot early. He hit six three-pointers and scored 20 points and couldn't get back on the floor late in the game because the team was operating so well.
Indiana Pacers rookie Miles Plumlee arrived in town at 5 p.m., and left minutes after the game after posting 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Plumlee is actually a good example of how this team is antsy to do things. They want to run. They go for steals and blocks. They don't take plays off.
“We're playing team defense, we're playing together, we have each other's backs and we're just making plays,” Mitchell said. “Guys came in and for the minutes they played, they all gave us a boost. This was a win at home we really needed.”
Ticknor said earlier this week he thought the team would need to finish 15-9 or 14-10 to be sure to be in contention for a playoff spot.
The Mad Ants are 0-for-franchise history in making the playoffs.
This team seems different. Maine made a late push Thursday. The Ants pushed back. That's a relatively new concept, too.
“One of the things they talked about before I got to Fort Wayne was that they were always in games but couldn't finish games,” Harangody said. “Now I think we've grown in that area. We know how to finish games.”
These Ants know how to win.
Interesting concept. I kind of like watching it.
MAD ANTS 115, MAINE 109
Maine: Downs 9-20 3-4 24, Wright 7-14 5-7 19, VanderMeer 1-5 0-0 2, Silas 7-20 2-3 16, Barrett 7-16 2-2 16, Ayer 5-9 6-9 16, Reed 6-8 0-2 16. Totals 42-92 18-27 109.
Fort Wayne: Harangody 11-21 7-8 29, Mitchell 7-19 3-4 19, Smith 2-4 0-0 4, Partin 7-19 0-0 20, Harris 5-13 4-6 15, Plumlee 5-12 1-4 11, Porter 0-1 0-0 0, Rojas 5-9 3-4 13, Wallace 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 44-101 18-26 115.
Three-point goals: M/7-17 (Reed 4-6, Downs 3-7, Barrett 0-1, Silas 0-3), FW/9-24 (Partin 6-14, Mitchell 2-5, Harris 1-1, Rojas 0-1, Harangody 0-3). Rebounds: M/51 (Wright 12, Reed 11), FW/53 (Harangody 13, Plumlee 10, Mitchell 9). Assists: M/26 (Barrett 15), FW/31 (Harris 17). Steals: M/5 (Wright 3), FW/11 (Rojas 5, Mitchell 3). Blocks: M/4, FW/9 (Plumlee 3). Turnovers: M/18, FW/12. Total fouls: M/20, FW/21. Attendance: 2,971