Ron Howard doesn't mention Mad Ants' history to his teammates. The less they know, the better.
Fort Wayne has won seven consecutive games – starters Luke Harangody and Anthony Richardson are 7-0 since joining the team – bringing its record to 10-10 and its playoff dreams back from the dead.
Howard, now in his sixth season playing for the team, has never experienced this type of winning vibe before.
He has known way too much losing with the Mad Ants, who have never made the NBA D-League playoffs, but he's keeping those memories to himself.
“I'll hold that burden; I don't want them to know how that feels,” Howard said. “Let's keep this train moving.”
Howard might just embrace this ride with a little more appreciation, however, knowing the past.
“We've had some extremely talented teams here, I don't think anyone disputes that,” Howard said. “But everything is coming together now. The guys we have in here, everyone's playing their role. We were getting killed on the boards. Now everyone's fighting for rebounds. We're defending well. We're having fun. Everyone's playing together.”
The catalyst for the change was a couple of bold roster moves. The Mad Ants sent longtime point guard Walker Russell Jr. to Reno in exchange for Richardson and Jack McClinton, then they dealt 2012 first-round draft pick JaJuan Johnson to Canton in exchange for Notre Dame alum Harangody.
Harangody is averaging 18.8 points and 14.7 rebounds per game in six games with the Ants. (He sat out once with a sore knee.) Richardson is averaging 15.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in seven games.
It was a risky deal by Ants president Jeff Potter and coach Duane Ticknor, giving up high-quality players to gain high-quality players. But something clicked with the new team that has led to a franchise-record winning streak.
The Ants play at the Los Angeles D-Fenders at 10 p.m. Fort Wayne time tonight.
“We're just playing unselfish,” Harangody said. “This team plays together and that's how we've been winning games. We haven't changed our game plan. We're doing exactly what coach wants and I think that's why we've been successful.”
Ticknor said he wouldn't answer direct questions about the winning streak. Perhaps he was worried about jinxing something. But he does believe the team's current strong play has roots even before the trades.
“I think it's been longer than seven games that we've been playing real hard,” Ticknor said. “Right now, our confidence is high, we're executing well and we've been really good at the defensive end of the court.”
There's no question some intangibles have fallen into place, too.
Harangody's effort level, particularly in rebounding, has rubbed off. He has a motor that doesn't quit running, chasing down rebounds as if his career depends on it. And if he hopes to get back to the NBA, it probably does.
Harangody pulled down his season-high 21 rebounds in the Ants' win at Erie on Saturday.
“I've always liked to rebound,” forward Sadiel Rojas said. “Tony (Mitchell) likes to rebound and we added Harangody, another guy who loves to rebound. So you've got three guys crashing the board every time. Some people love to rebound and everybody else is buying in.”
The Ants have found a reliable “big three” punch in Howard, Harangody and Mitchell.
Howard leads the team with 19.8 points per game, but has also taken to a new role as starting point guard, with his assists up to nearly five per game. He also averages close to five rebounds per game.
Harangody provides an inside punch, and Mitchell is another consistent scorer, averaging 15.9 points per game.
Darryl Partin has been playing more minutes now and his scoring has increased. Rojas and Brandon Wallace have been effective coming off the bench while maintaining the team's product and intensity.
The Ants have benefited from NBA-assigned players, too. Indiana Pacers rookie Miles Plumlee and Milwaukee Bucks rookie Doron Lamb are on the Ants' current four-game road trip.
“Give some pats on the back to the NBA teams for talking with their guys about how they're supposed to play,” Ticknor said. “They're blending in and not looking for 25 shots. Milwaukee called and said they were sending Lamb down but said 'We don't want to mess up what's going on. Blend him in.' “
Plumlee has played eight games for the Ants. Orlando Johnson, a Pacers guard who has played four games in Fort Wayne, has increased his minutes with the Pacers.
“Orlando's averaging 12 minutes and playing well (for the Pacers),” Ticknor said. “They're seeing the benefits. Not only do we benefit, but the Pacers do, too.”
The Ants still have 30 games left in the season, so it's too early to speculate on that first playoff berth. But a franchise-best winning streak may have changed the culture.
Could winning be the new Ants' way?
“It's a wonderful feeling," Howard said. "Fort Wayne fans deserve this, they really do.”