As the clock struck 10:45pm on Dec. 9, I was unable to turn the key in my rental car. After watching the Austin Toros lose 114-120 to the home-team Vipers of the Rio Grande Valley, I sat in that car, staring straight ahead, unable to grasp the eerie truth behind one of the NBDL's most sinister secrets.
Lance Thomas, and similar guys on other D-League squads, were getting called up to training camps in the NBA.
Sure, when I signed up for this lifestyle, reporting for the Toros through thick and thin and what's happening right now before our very eyes, I knew this might happen. I've been preparing for this kind of day, but now that it's happened, now that Thomas is playing in New Orleans, it's just too soon. Please forgive my somber mood as I explain in great detail the week that was, as it pertains to the Austin Toros and their march towards a D-League Championship.
Maybe I should explain why this weekly report is three days late, and why I'm holding back a sad-eyed explosion every few hours (right now I'm deep in Toros thought, and as a result, I'm crying pretty hard). You see, this was the week that NBA training camps opened up, something we all thought we'd probably miss out on this year, until that midnight hour meeting a few weeks back when suddenly the NBA was back on track. So here comes training camp, just a couple weeks after the Toros started winning us over with their near-perfect chemistry and unbeatable characteristics (on and off the court). Along with the new NBA preseason comes training-camp invites, and with the invites go some of our favorite Toros.
Lance Thomas, perhaps the best example of a guy deserving his Toros days to be commemorated forever with a dangling number up in the rafters of the Cedar Park Center, is now no longer with us. His quest outweighed his Toros pride, as it should, and with his stellar play for Austin's own, Thomas was an obvious choice for the New Orleans Hornets originally of Charlotte. He packed his bags, said his goodbyes, and cookies began to crumble. Thomas started for the depleted Hornets team in their first preseason game. He played well against the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 7 points with 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block. The Toros will deeply miss him on both offense and defense, as well as in the community where he was a vocal leader among men, women, and children alike.
Luke Zeller … where do I begin on my heartfelt goodbye speech to the one the kids called "Slambuki Luke," the flawed center who shot 3s … well, his 3-point accuracy will be a fine addition to Spurs practice, the team he now calls home. Surely, a 6-foot 11-inch guy named Luke who shoots 3s but doesn't rebound or defend all that poignantly will find a niche somewhere in life, and heck, it wouldn't be all that surprising for the guy to find his way back to Austin, what with the Toros being the official farm team of the Spurs. In any case, Slambuki Luke was one guy who made this early-season stretch so memorable, and he will be missed. (But not as much as Thomas. That guy was everything.)
Although Lance Thomas and Slambuki Luke Zeller are the two most likely players to find long-term homes with NBA clubs, they are not the only two Toros players to find training-camp invites to this ultra-compact NBA preseason. Along with Thomas, Toros starters Justin Dentmon and Squeaky Johnson were wearing Hornets blue and darker blue (maybe some blueish green involved in those unis). Dentmon, the one we all thought was going to lead us, didn't play much of a role for the NBA-owned Hornets, scoring zero with 1 assist in just five minutes on the floor. Squeaky Johnson had a terrific fourth quarter for the Hornets, scoring 10 points in the frame.
With four starters sent up to The Show, the Austin Toros are looking extremely different these days. What once looked like a real championship contender, now looks like an up-and-comer, a mystery box full of promising dribble-drives and long 2-point fade-aways. So what does this new Toros team look like, and how are they stacking up against their competition? Let's look back at the week that was, and please, try to do so without the sadness. It's all part of the game, they tell me. But it doesn't make the pain go away. But this is what we'll do, Toros lifers, we're going to use that pain for good, for production. We're going to take that pain and sadness, and we're going to use it to take our championship goals even farther, against all odds. We're going to convert our Toros-mobiles, which originally ran on normal good-times vibes, into new, pain-powered vehicles of destruction (on the court). Sure, players will go to the NBA if it's there for them to do so, and in the aftermath, we need to examine our pieces, take a gander at the upcoming schedule, and try to win games, two wins for every one loss. Back on track. Back in the saddle. Toros, sweetheart. It's always been the Toros. Toros yesterday, Toros now, and Toros forever.
Austin came into last week with a semi-strong, 2-1 record. It's this record that I've come to expect from our favorite players, and as a result, their final record will hopefully resemble that of a 31-15 finish (in theory). Their final December game against the Tulsa 66ers might very well have also been the final Toros games for our heroes, Lance, Luke, Justin, and Squeaky (although probably not for all four). The Toros sent them out with a bang, winning the game 94-80 behind the pure smooth slide of Dentmon and his 25 points. Thomas did his thing, with an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double. With the victory came warm regards as Austin sat with a 3-1 record. Unfortunately, then came the Viper bites in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Vipers have been playing some insane basketball. They've got a guy named Stan Asumnu who is nicknamed "The Animal." His love for Rob Schneider movies makes him a wild player, and he finished the game with 20 points and 16 rebounds. In his Viper debut, Suleiman Barimoh knocked down all six of his shot attempts, including three from downtown. His fire-shot was just another factor in what became a 120-114 Toros loss. For Austin, a team in search of a new dynamic with the loss of such important players, the new starting lineup actually stepped in and played well on the offensive end (unfortunately, that's just half of the ends involved). Four of the starters, Miles McKay, Dan Vandervieren, Terrence Woodsbury, and Tristin Thompson all scored in double figures for Austin. Unfortunately, they gave up a heaping pile of points to the Vipers, and as a result, the Toros lost the game and sat at 3-2 with a second game against Rio Grande Valley right around the bend.
The next game went much better for Austin, as their new starting lineup took another step toward finding that cooling gel that results in great team chemistry. In what came down to the very final seconds, Austin won a nail-biter 106-105. It should have been an easy victory, but the Toros failed to hold a sizeable late fourth-quarter lead. In fact, the Toros were up much of the first half by double digits. But like all snakes, the Vipers started slithering their way back into the game. In the end, the Vipers had a chance to tie at the buzzer, but a 3-point attempt by Kelvin Lewis clanked off the front rim and the two-point put-back by Stan Asumnu was one point shy of being enough for overtime. Omar Reed, one of the new Toros acquired after the exodus of talent, led Austin with an incredibly efficient 26 points on 10 of 13 shooting. Maybe Reed can be the new face of the franchise. Time will tell. Toros 4-2 after the victory.
Back home came the Toros, where they put the beat-down on the Texas Legends, 118-115. The Toros ended the first half with a 13-point lead, but the third quarter belonged to the Legends. Outscoring Austin 36-26 in the frame, Texas climbed back into the game, but as their 1-7 record indicates, the Legends weren't going to find their way to win. In the end, strong games from Terrence Woodbury and new Toro Stefan Welsh gave the good guys everything they needed to take care of Texas. At 1-7, our biggest rivals, the Legends, sure aren't making the noise we thought they'd make. The Toros with the sweet record of 5-2, winning three straight at home.
Thursday night, back at the Cedar Park Center, that home winning streak vanished with the snap of the Vipers' fangs. Rio Grande Valley, bringing a mind full of revenge into the Austin night, outplayed the Toros in a 108-119 home loss. Stanley Asumnu, the Animal, made up for the loss from the previous match-up with 28 points and 10 rebounds on the hyper-wicked 12 of 15 shooting. With a performance like that, it's tough for any opposition to come back, let alone an offensive-minded squad like the Toros, and with Austin down by 21 points going into the fourth quarter, the game was out of reach. Although the rebounding has improved with Luke Zeller going to the Spurs, the defense was still pretty weak down low. The Vipers did what they wanted, and shot 53% as a team. They knocked down their free throws, something the Toros failed to match, and in the end, this game was never close. The Toros finished the (slightly longer than a) week with a 3-2 record, which when added to the previous week, makes it 5-3 for the young season.
Final Thoughts on Lance Thomas:
Lance Thomas, the nicest dude in town, the former Duke Blue Devil and Toros great, has been called up to The Show. Is it just a training camp invite? Is it more? Is it a trick against me, personally? It's weird. Thomas was a great Toros player; we all know that. In fact, in the short stint he held with the Austin Toros team, he was the face of the franchise. While Leo Lyons did his Grant Hill impression, only with a weirder look on his face, Thomas invited us into his gym. He played water balloons with our children. He tied the shoes of our elders. Thomas did so much for our tiny town, and as a result, we smiled with a genuine feeling. Something we hadn't felt before. Sure, Marcus Fizer played in our house. He was a good dude. But Lance was different. Lance was … well, Lance was Lance. He was one of a kind. His comparisons fall short, because what can you compare a flying star to? A shooting star? A star of complicated gassiness? One shimmering star of unbridled, minor-league greatness? You call it Lance Thomas. And you never forget how freaking good that freaking star was in a Toros uniform, even if you never knew it existed. Everything shined brighter with Lance Thomas in Austin. And it will never be the same again now that he's gone.
The Week Ahead:
It's not easy, watching our favorite players come and go like it doesn't matter. Because you know what? It does matter. It matters as much as anything, really. And so we march onward, with two games this week before the Toros get a nice little break for the holidays. First up, a Sunday home game against the Legends, and hopefully the lousy record for Texas will get even lousier. If the Toros can beat the 1-7 Legends, they'll be right on track for my "win 2, lose 1" strategy.
After the home game against Texas, the Toros will hit the road for their first match-up against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, a game to be played on Friday the 23rd. The Toros will have plenty of practice time in-between the two games, so they need to take care of business against the Mad Ants, who have one of the coolest names in the D-League. Fort Wayne will be coming off a game against the suddenly hot Sioux Falls Sky Force (one of the worst names in the D-League) just one night earlier, and the back-to-back could produce fatigue problems for the Mad Ants.
Either way, the Toros have a good amount of rest and practice ahead, and the player movement should be under control after NBA clubs finalize their rosters this week. Who knows, maybe we'll see some of our favorite guys back in Toros silver and black. And just when I had gotten over the lost Toro blues …. Oh well. See you at the arena! I'll see you but you won't see me. That's how I like it, Toros style.
Vs. Texas: Sun., Dec. 18, 3pm. Cedar Park Center, 2100 Avenue of the Stars, Cedar Park, 512/600-5000. $8-99 plus fees.
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