The Motor City Cruise wrapped up their inaugural regular season campaign on Saturday, topping the Cleveland Charge 118-106 at their new arena on the campus of Wayne State University. The Cruise finished the regular season 22-10, 2nd place in the Eastern Conference.
With a roster headlined by hometown hero Derrick Walton Jr. and flanked by NBA veterans Cheick Diallo and Cassius Stanley, the Cruise clinched a playoff berth weeks before the regular season had concluded. Led by General Manager Rob Murphy and head coach DJ Bakker, Motor City wasted no time putting a playoff team in place while the Detroit Pistons, their NBA affiliate, hope they can replicate the Cruise’s winning ways next season.
By finishing 2nd in the conference, the Cruise earned a first-round bye in the playoffs, which begin this week, an achievement the organization is incredibly proud of.
“It’s a testimony to all the guys we have on our team — hard-working, high-character guys, guys that are about the right thing and about winning,” head coach DJ Bakker said on Saturday. “The players that we have, the organizational support that we’ve been given, to me it’s a culmination of those things.”
In late December, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases throughout the NBA, the G League had to pause their season, shutting the Cruise down as numerous players on their roster were called up to the NBA to fill in for players in health and safety protocols. Core players like Walton, Diallo, Stanley, Deividas Sirvydis, and Trayvon Palmer earned call-ups to the Pistons.
Walton and Stanley left strong impressions with Detroit during their time with the club, with the former earning multiple 10-day contracts throughout the month of January. Walton played a key role in the Pistons’ short-handed win over the San Antonio Spurs on January 1st.
Once the G League season resumed on January 5, the Cruise rattled off seven wins in eight games as the team rounded into form. With the assistance of two-way players Jamorko Pickett and Chris Smith, as well as the presence of Saben Lee and rookie Luka Garza from the Pistons, the Cruise have the G League on notice in year one of the franchise’s existence.
“Guys got tremendous confidence,” Bakker said when talking about the opportunity players such as Walton and Stanley had when they were called up to the Pistons in late December. “I think it gave them the confidence of like ‘hey the dream is real and I’m not that far away from being an NBA player.’ When you create true belief and true confidence that translates to your style of play and I thought for a number of those guys they played with a different level of confidence after that.”
With the Pistons season winding down, the Cruise are hoping to be at full strength for their playoff run. That would include having Saben Lee at Bakker’s disposal. The second-year guard has been one of the best players in the G League when he has been with the team.
Lee has played in 19 of the Cruise’s 32 games this season, averaging 24 points, 6.8 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game. He was named the G League Player of the Month for November and picked up two G League Performer of the Week awards throughout the year. He’s scored 30 or more points in seven games this season and 40 or more points four times. He’s also recorded five double-doubles.
“I’m extremely grateful to be down here with the Cruise and being able to play my game,” Lee said after he notched a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double on Sunday. “To be able to come down here and play and showcase what I can do — leading the team, winning games, and showing my value.”
It’s unclear who else will be available for Motor City. Jamorko Pickett has been up with the Pistons the last few weeks and posted a 13-point, eight-rebound performance in Detroit’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday. He then played with the Cruise on Saturday in their win over Cleveland. Isaiah Livers, another Detroit rookie, has been up with the team and part of Detroit’s rotation since he was called up from the Cruise. Luka Garza has been nursing an ankle injury and hasn’t appeared in a game since March 25th. It’s unclear what his status will be once the playoffs begin.
Dwane Casey told reporters last week that he wanted to give guys like Saben Lee a chance to play some minutes with Detroit over the rest of the season, but he also understands the opportunity Motor City has right now. The presence of Lee, Pickett, and Garza would be a huge boon to their rotation.
The G League Playoffs begin on April 5, five days before the end of the NBA’s regular season.
No matter the opponent, the Cruise are confident that they are ready to make a postseason run. Just ask Saben Lee.
“I feel like when we’re playing our game, sharing the ball, doing what we need to do, I truly feel like no team in the league can beat us.”
The Cruise will play its first playoff game in franchise history on Friday at home. They will face the winner of the Delaware Blue Coats/Long Island Nets game that will be played on Tuesday night.
The G League season is a grind. Teams don’t travel on private planes with a schedule that is designed to keep players fresh and healthy over the course of the season. Most, if not all games are commuted via bus, and schedules are compacted to make trips as efficient and cost-effective as possible, even if it means back-to-backs and a crammed schedule.
“Unfavorable conditions never come.”
It was a mantra shared Sunday by Bakker before the game and relayed by Lee after it. It’s a quote that G Leaguers have to embrace in order to succeed. Motor City has embraced it, and looks to carry that same mentality into the playoffs later this week.