PORTLAND — Daniel Dixon sat on the edge of a training room table Sunday afternoon in the bowels of the Portland Expo, holding a clear plastic bag of ice to his mouth.
“I take a lot of charges,” Dixon said matter-of-factly. “It kind of comes with (the territory), every once in a while.”
Dixon earned his fat lip by drawing a charge on Lakeland Magic point guard Troy Caupain early in the fourth quarter of a game the Red Claws trailed by two points. Instead of Caupain scoring an easy layup, he was called – after officials reviewed the play on video – for a flagrant foul, resulting in a pair of Andrew White free throws followed by a White jumper that gave Maine the lead for good.
The Claws went on to a 111-101 victory before a sellout crowd of 2,714 at the Expo.
“Seeing a teammate go down in a key part of the game, we wanted to pick up the effort for him,” said Jabari Bird, who led all scorers with 30 points. “That kind of spurred our run. We got more motivated. And he came back and made some big plays down the stretch.”
Indeed, Dixon converted a drive and then fed a cutting Bird to give Maine (12-10) a 104-94 lead with less than five minutes remaining. Kadeem Allen, the other Red Claws player along with Bird on a two-way contract with the parent Boston Celtics, sealed the victory with a step-back 3-pointer to extend the margin to 11.
Dixon finished with six points and five assists.
“I thought, overall, he played great, our team played great, and that was a big win against a good team,” said Bird.
The victory was the second in a row for the Red Claws, who won for the fourth time in six games after losing five of their previous six. After a 6-3 record in November, they finished December at 6-7.
Lakeland (13-7) entered the contest with the G League’s best winning percentage, thanks to a seven-game winning streak that ended Thursday in Austin, Texas. The Magic’s two-way players from Orlando, Jamel Artis and Adreian Payne, scored 29 and 18 points, respectively.
Sunday’s game marked the Red Claws debut of 6-foot-8 forward Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 NBA draft pick out of Nevada-Las Vegas in 2013, who arrived in town Friday morning following a trade with the Northern Arizona Suns.
Bennett played the last half of the first quarter and sank his first shot, a 3-pointer set up by Dixon, and grabbed two rebounds. He played barely more than a minute of the second quarter and did not return.
“He’s been really sick,” said Red Claws Coach Brandon Bailey. “It’s hard to go from 75-degree weather to minus-10.”
Bennett, who has played for four NBA teams and spent half of last season in Turkey, grew up outside of Toronto, but said the chills and body ache came on suddenly Sunday morning.
“The first time, I tried to push through it and I was fine,” he said of his first stint on the floor. “The second time I went out there, I couldn’t catch my breath at all. So we shut it down.”
“That first stint, you could tell, he’s going to be a difference-maker for us,” Bailey said. “Offensively, defensively, communication defensively, it’s a totally different feel. That kid is an NBA player and we just gotta figure out a way to get him back up there.”
With Bennett unavailable, the Red Claws often went small against Lakeland’s trio of the 6-foot-10 Payne, 6-11 Xavier Gibson and 6-10 Reggis Onwukamuche. Maine countered with its biggest player, 6-9 Devin Williams, along with 6-7 Daniel Dingle, and spread the floor to create room for Allen, Bird or L.J. Peak to drive.
“When they’re big, you have to space them out and get them away from the basket,” Bailey said. “We struggled defending the post, but that was going to happen, because they’re much bigger than us.”
Allen and Peak each finished with 18 points. White had 17. Williams contributed 14 points and eight rebounds.
NOTES: The Claws return to action Friday night at the Expo against Austin (13-9). … Bird hit 12 of 17 from the field and 4 of 7 from deep. “It wasn’t a forced 30,” Bailey said. “Everything he got (Sunday) was in the flow of the offense: attacking the paint, back cuts, open 3s. I felt like it just came to him.” … Trey Davis (hamstring) did not play. … Friday marks the first day when NBA teams can sign G League players to 10-day contracts. Two-way players are not eligible. “Our guys are getting some sniffs,” Bailey said. “Hopefully they get some call-ups.”