Round 1 for Denver
- By Ken Walden, Day 190, 2025
Ending the season, through a series of tiebreakers, as the #2 seed, the Denver Dragons drew the #7 seed as an opponent, the St. Louis Skyhawks. The Dragons and Skyhawks had never met in the postseason, but had some history, with the Skyhawks of course having traded Jevon Novak to Denver in 2022. Novak had just achieved his first All-Star team as a Skyhawk (his 2nd overall), and has gone on to four straight All-Star teams in Denver.
The Dragons were 2-1 against the Skyhawks in the regular season this year. However, the regular season hardly seemed to matter, as the the most notable news in this playoff round was the injury to Mark Hunter. Hunter, only 24 but in his 8th year with the Skyhawks, was the lynchpin of the team's offense, scoring 23.8 points per game in the regular season. With Hunter out, the offense would rest in the hands of the next two highest scorers. Most importantly was small forward Tezale Craig, in his 14th season, second with the Skyhawks, and on his 12th All-Star team this season. Craig was scoring 19.1 points per game but would need to increase his scoring with Hunter out. Point guard Jamal Johnson was the team's third highest scorer with 16.3 points, and their best three point threat. The question for the Skyhawks was whether anyone could take over Hunter's scoring and how the GM would shift the lineup, with the Johnson, Phillips, Craig, Astbury, Hunter lineup having logged over 1,000 minutes in the regular season.
The Dragons on the other hand were fully healthy for the first time in weeks. They started off the series with a win at home, Antoine Hall and Novak leading the scoring with 22 and 25 apiece. The game was tight, with the Skyhawks leading going into the fourth quarter. However, the Dragons went on an 8-2 run in the middle of the quarter to make it a two-point game. The Skyhawks pushed back with a run of their own to increase the lead to 8 with 3 minutes left in the game. Jevon Novak then went supernova, scoring 11 points in the next two minutes to make it a close game again. Scores by Sherman and Hall tied the game and then gave the Dragons the lead, with Craig, Winfield, and Johnson missing six straight shots to end the game.
Games 2 and 3 would not be so close, with the Dragons establishing convincing leads going into the fourth and the Skyhawks not able to catch up. In Game 2, Hall took advantage of the loss of Hunter, scoring 30 points in only 24 minutes, while Novak also put up 30 and Fortier had an efficient 19. In these games, Craig did not increase his regular season scoring, averaging 19 points in those games, but Trey Astbury averaged 24 in games 2 and 3, giving the Skyhawks a scoring boost.
In Game 3, the Skyhawks attempted a new lineup, shifting PF Fullard to the bench and playing Craig at PF, Jamal Johnson at SG, and putting in Rubin Wingfield at PG. Wingfield put up 20 points, however Novak put up 29 points and Wesley Sherman scored 24 against Craig, suggesting that the new offense came at the expense of defense.
With the return of Mark Hunter in Game 4, the Skyhawks struck hard at home and came away with a 3-point win. Back to their regular lineup, the Skyhawks had balanced scoring and owned the boards with 20 offensive rebounds. Hall struggled against Hunter, only scoring 11 points in nearly 40 minutes. Craig was the star of that win, hitting a shot with six seconds left to extend the lead to 5 and ice the game.
Game 5 was back in Denver, however, and though the Skyhawks got a 32 points game from Hunter, they could not pull out the win. The Skyhawks went with a new lineup with Wingfield at point, Phillips at the 2, DeAnthony Hunter at small forward, Craig at the power forward, and Hunter in the center. Wingfield again scored well but couldn't slow down Novak, who scored 33 points while Wingfield fouled out after 41 minutes. Hunter was again able to silence Hall, the big man leaving the game with an injury after an unimpressive start, but Chris Rainey put up 15 points from the bench at the center position. And Fortier feasted on the Other Hunter, only scoring 16 on 8/11 shooting, but racking up 3 steals and 5 blocks. The Skyhawks never led after the first quarter, and the Dragons closed off the series at home.
In the end, the loss of Hunter to start the series hurt the Skyhawks, though the games he missed were away games and so may not have cost the series. The struggle was to find consistent scoring outside of Hunter against the tough Dragons defense, while also containing the multiple offensive threats on the Dragons. The Skyhawks tried multiple lineups but were unable to find the most effective one in time. The Dragons move on to face the Mexico City Jaguars.