Sunday Afternoon at the Convention Center

Austin Toros vs. Sioux Falls Skyforce
Dec. 17

Pregame:

Just my luck: My first game back with the Toros after an unexpected trip home, and the team’s new main man, Jay Williams, former first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls – the guy I had come to see - is dressed to impress in a fancy new double-breasted suit and the latest in crutches: sidelined with a groin injury after only one game. I sink into my seat, dejected.

In all fairness, the Toros are probably more disappointed at Williams’ absence than I am. As much as I wanted to see Williams play, the Toros need him to play. In fact, when you come into a game with a record of 0-8 you need everyone to play: former NBA superstars, veteran role players, rookie bench guys, old ladies, small children, loyal journalists, everyone. All hands on deck when you’re batting a thousand in the wrong direction.

And on top of everything else, it’s Jay Williams poster night at the gym, this being his first home game, so there’s an added irony to the afternoon, an irony I don’t think the Toros need right now.

Despite the dour scenario, however, 1,974 fans have shown up to see their Toros play, and play they will. Their opponent: the 5-4 Sioux Falls Skyforce. “Dear God,” I pray quietly as a local elementary school choir sings "The Star Spangled Banner," “don’t let us lose to a team from South Dakota. That would be an unbearable indignity.”

First quarter:

I have to say, despite their being winless after eight games, the Toros don’t look discouraged. In fact, here in the early going they are more aggressive than they were during their first home games. I felt at the beginning of the season that the Toros were getting killed because their guards weren’t driving the lane and as a consequence weren’t getting easy shots or trips to the foul line. Tonight, though, point guard Brock Gillespie looks more confident, and he and Toros leading scorer B.J. Elder are making more of an effort to get inside.

Halfway through the quarter coach Johnson puts in James White, a six-foot-seven-inch rookie forward who’s spending some time here in Austin at the request of his employer, the San Antonio Spurs. Let’s hope he’s the answer to the Toros’ Christmas prayers.

As the quarter goes on, the teams’ predisposition toward one-on-one play starts shining through. Passes are becoming less frequent, and guys are trying to go it alone. The problem with basketball is that it’s never really one on one; as long as the other team is on the floor, the game will always be one on five. And unless you’re Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, or me on a particularly good day at the 22nd Street court (behind El Chilito), you can’t win playing one on five.

Right at the buzzer, with Sioux Falls leading 17-14, Kris Clack hits a three-pointer to tie the game going into the break. Try as I might I can’t maintain any journalistic distance; I feel like hugging the guy.

End of first quarter: 17-17.

Second quarter:

Early in the quarter, Gillespie is called for a charge while driving into the lane. When the whistle is initially blown, I’m convinced they’re going to call goaltending on Skyforce forward Luke Whitehead, and I jump up in appreciation of the call and to show everyone in the building I know what the rules of basketball are. When they call the foul on Gillespie instead, I act like I stood up to flag down a friend across the gym and then slip sheepishly back into my seat. The lack of instant replay at Toros games is killing me. Did Brock commit the charge or was Sioux Falls guilty of goaltending? I have my opinions, and I’m sure I’m right, but I sleep more comfortably knowing that those opinions have been confirmed by the latest technology and a team of experts.

B.J. Elder and Kris Clack are a mile off tonight, throwing the ball away, getting called for travels and double dribbles, throwing up air balls, and generally looking like they’re already on Christmas vacation somewhere. With these two guys essentially out of the game during the entire first half, the Toros are dependent on their second-year forward Scott Merritt to keep them in the game. At the break Elder, the third leading scorer in the D-League, has only four points.

Halftime: Toros 40, Skyforce 42

Third quarter:

Sometimes I wonder if people realize that a basketball game is made up of two halves. When I step outside for a cigarette, the majority of the crowd is heading for their cars, saying their goodbyes, making plans for later in the evening. I have a hard enough time understanding why someone would leave before a game is over, but leaving at halftime? It doesn’t make any sense. Why bother coming at all? Games don’t start getting competitive until the second half; everybody knows that. The first half might as well be warm-ups, just a friendly pickup game on a Sunday afternoon. But the second half: that’s when the action starts. If you don’t want to sit through the entire 48 minutes, why not just show up for the second half? I don’t know. Maybe they’re all Francis Scott Key fans.

The Skyforce have found a weakness in the Toros defense, and they’re starting to exploit it. Every time down the floor they’re sending guard Elton Nesbitt streaming along the baseline, forcing the Toros’ big men to follow him below the basket, stretching their defense, and leaving their own big guys alone beneath the basket for easy scores. Using this technique, Sioux Falls is starting to pull away. It doesn’t help that the Toros are playing like the Keystone Cops on the offensive end, throwing balls into the stands or into the outstretched arms of their defenders. I can’t quite put my finger on it – the way they’re playing and the record they have – because they’ve got a deep well of talent on this team; they just can’t seem to harness it for a full 48-minute game and put it to some good use. What you end up with is five exceptional players on the court looking like men without a country. You can’t win that way.

Watching coach Dennis Johnson dispute a call I think to myself that it must be more than a little nerve-racking for these refs, who, like everyone else in the league, are young guys trying to gain enough of a basketball education to get themselves up to the NBA. To make a call and then have it disputed by an NBA legend like Johnson - a former NBA champion, all-star, and a shoo-in for hall of fame induction, a man who’s forgotten enough about basketball to write a book - must be unnerving.

End of third quarter: Toros 61, Skyforce70.

Fourth quarter:

B.J. Elder is taking over the game. Like so many great players, he has an instinct for turning his game on in the fourth quarter. When he gets streaky like this he can’t be covered. Play him too close, and he’ll burn you and go straight to the basket. Give him too much room, and he’ll drill the three-point shot right in your face. Watching him come alive I wonder why the offense doesn’t run through him all the time. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before his number is called and he ends up in the NBA, which would constitute a catastrophe here in Austin.

The problem, though, is that his team plays a very predictable and cluttered game, crowding the middle and hoping their big men can score one on one in the low post, instead of sending guards into the lane and opening up shots for shooters on the outside. The result is a ton of errant passes and broken plays. Again, there’s more than enough talent on this team; there just needs to be more spacing in their set plays to allow that talent to breathe.

Meanwhile the Skyforce is killing them with penetration and dishes, while the Toros are killing themselves with turnovers and mental lapses. Halfway through the quarter it’s clear Sioux Falls is pulling away, amassing an 11-point lead and continuing to drive to the basket and get to the free-throw line. And every time the Toros get a big stop or start to chip away at their deficit, someone will make a crucial mental error and turn the ball over. I’m beginning to think that the Toros have seen their enemy and it is them.

When the final whistle is blown, I’m so depressed I can barely find the strength to ogle the Toros dancers.
Somehow, though, I manage.

Final score: Toros 94, Skyforce 99.

Toros record: 0-9.

(Santa, if you’re listening, please, please, please send the Toros a win for Christmas. Do that, and I promise to start believing in you and your friend the Baby Jesus.)

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