A team that lost 10 of its first 15 games, the Reno Bighorns climbed as high as it ever has in the 2017-18 season.
The G League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings won the Pacific Division and finished second in the Western Conference. Its ascent ended Tuesday in the second round of the single-elimination playoffs with a 126-109 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers team, South Bay, in front of 2,523 fans in the Reno Events Center.
“I am very proud,” Bighorns coach Darrick Martin said. “Nobody gave us a chance after we started out 5-10. All of the guys have gotten better and truly that is the purpose of this league.”
The only other time the Bighorns (29-22) made it to the second round was in the 2010-2011 season. They last won the division in 2015-16. The significance of the game was noted Tuesday by the presence of Kings General Manager Vlade Divac and former coach George Karl, the father of South Bay’s head coach Coby Karl.
Led by fiery big man Jack Cooley, the Bighorns had a big edge in offensive rebounds against the Lakers, 16-8, but the visitors simply out-ran and out-shot Reno. Gary Payton II, Scott Machado, Thomas Bryant and Travis Wear combined for 107 points.
“To have a 50-game season and then a one-game playoff is pretty ridiculous,” said Cooley, who preferred to talk about the season and not the game. The five-year pro said he has never played better than he has this year. He’s played four games with Sacramento this season
“I attribute it all to the coaches and what I’ve learned down here,” he said. “This team got along better than any team I’ve been on. There has not been a single incident all season and that’s never happened in my career.”
At 6-10, 273 pounds, Cooley is a Bill Laimbeer clone. Like the fellow Notre Dame alumnus, he is a fierce competitor who plays with a white-hot anger. After being whistled for a foul in the second half, Cooley told Martin, “I didn’t even touch him.” Meanwhile, the player he fouled, Bryant, was still laying in pain at the other end of the court.
Cooley finished the game with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Bighorn swingman JaKarr Sampson had a team-high 25 points. Cooley and Sampson are “two-way players,” whose contract is split between Reno and the NBA’s Sacramento. Two-way players can spend up to 45 days with their NBA club.
Payton, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Gary Payton, is a two-way Laker who played like it on Tuesday. Generously listed as 6-foot-3, Payton had 30 points, 13 rebounds, six steals and six assists.
The Lakers nearly blew the Bighorns out of the gym, jumping out to an 11-2 lead, then stretching it to 19-8. But Cooley beat the hell out of Bryant, an Indiana alum, underneath and Reno rallied to take the lead 43-41 with 6 minutes, 25 seconds left in the first half. The Lakers tied the game four times late in the second quarter.
Marcus Williams, who shot a miserable 1-11 from the three-point line, made a steal, passed to Michael Bethea Jr., who lofted upcourt to Cooley. He finished the fast break to give the Bighorns a 58-52 lead.
Peyton responded with a slashing drive in traffic, drawing the foul and completing a three-point play, then stealing the inbound pass and sinking a fadeway 20 footer. Rattled, the Bighorns threw the ball away and Travis Wear made a buzzer-beating bank shot from inside the Bighorns halfcourt logo to give the Lakers a 62-58 intermission lead. The six-point lead had quickly changed to a four-point deficit.
While everybody’s a pro at this level, institutional knowledge is omnipresent. Wear, who has played 13 NBA games this year, finished his career at UCLA in 2014. Bighorns coach Martin, a 1992 grad, ended his college days in 1992 as UCLA’s second all-time assist and steals leader.
Asked about Wear’s smooth shooting stroke and his basketball lineage, Martin said, “I don’t consider him a UCLA guy. He started out at North Carolina and then transferred.”
In an entertaining second half, the Bighorns 6-1 guard Josh Hagins inspired his team with outside shooting and hesitation drive moves. But the Lakers guard Luis Montero, a Brazilian-American with a lot of NBA experience, used an arm bar and hesitation moves of his own to help his team pull way.
“We didn’t make enough plays,” Martin said. “We missed easy baskets and free throws. We were a little out of synch.”
South Bay will play the Austin Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.