LOS ANGELES -- The game between league leaders Hank's Blazers and Cheaters II at the Drew League on Saturday was tight, but the game inside the game was even tighter.
It was an unexpectedly classic one-on-one battle between an established NBA'er and college player that attracted most of the attention at Colonel Leon H. Washington Park in South L.A.
Detroit Pistons forward Austin Daye and Long Beach State forward Edis Dervisevic went at it on both sides of the court for possessions on end, much to the delight of a packed house at the park gymnasium, an attendance again boosted by rumors that Miami Heat stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade planned to attend (the superstars were not there).
Daye won the battle, leading his Blazers to a hard-fought 71-63 comeback win over Cheaters II. But, for quite a while, it looked like Dervisevic would pull off an epic upset -- at least early on, when the 49er was beating Daye on energy plays and sparking his team.
"Everyone wants to have a challenge out here, and his challenge was to go out there and guard me," said Daye, a 2009 first-round pick of the Pistons, a part-time starter last season who averaged 7.5 points per game. "He did a good job, but it didn't last throughout the whole game, because I wasn't going to let that happen. But he earned my respect. I mean, he earned a lot of people's respect.
"That right there just defines the Drew League."
Dervisevic talked all kinds of trash to Daye, trying to get far inside the forward's head. At one point in the second quarter, Daye was so visibly frustrated his coach, Rodrick Shannon, had to take him out of the game and replace him with Kenneth Faried.
After the halftime break, Daye and Dervisevic went back at it, the NBA player impressed by how much fight the collegian had in him. Even when Daye went back to the basics and converted 20-footers, Dervisevic was staying with him on defense, or attempting to, at least.
"That makes you a basketball player, when you can go at an NBA player and he can go back at you and you're not afraid," said Daye, the son of former UCLA and NBA forward Darren Daye. "It makes you who you are on the court.
"That's what I had to do every day with my dad growing up."
Dervisevic, who played in a Drew League game with James last week and had the assist on one of his highlight-reel dunks, wasn't fail-proof on the court Saturday. He made his fair share of mistakes, with overambitious passes leading to turnovers on multiple occasions. But the tenacity he displayed in going after Daye again and again was noticeable.
"That's all I can do, man: go out there and play my hardest," said Dervisevic, the seventh man for the 49ers last season, when he averaged 2.1 points per game. "And trash talk a little bit, because I'm from New York."
Added Dervisevic: "When the crowd is behind you, you have to perform -- you just have to. You have no choice."
Of course, Faried made a sizable difference. The 6-8, 225-pound forward's ability and presence on the defensive end forced Dervisevic to alter his game entirely and took the ball out of his hands late in the game.
"Everybody was getting behind him, because he was the underdog and Austin Daye is, of course, an NBA player," said Faried, the 22nd overall pick in the June draft by the Denver Nuggets. "I just wanted to show him, 'OK, you need to stop now,' pretty much."
"I knew I had to shut him down and keep him quiet, make him understand his place. And I did."
Faried said he heard Dervisevic and Daye talking trash, back-and-forth, from the bench throughout the first half and sensed his teammate getting peeved close to the point of no return.
"See, that's why I put Faried in for Austin," said Shannon, the 2009 Drew League champion when coaching a team led by San Diego natives Jeremy Tyler and Malcolm Thomas. "I didn't want him to get caught in one-and-one. Austin already dominates the ball, and with him going one-on-one, that's a recipe for disaster.
"That's why I'm the coach."
The team Shannon’s coaching has, at 10-1, the best record of any of the Drew’s 24 teams. Now, with playoffs beginning Friday and stretching through Saturday, Aug. 13, they face the challenge of winning four more games in order to take home the title.
They're the presumed favorites -- not because of any star power with Daye and Faried but because they play together, week in and week out.
"Here, when you get a team and you're around them all the time -- I mean, we're here every weekend -- we've gotten better with each other," Daye said Saturday. "I think we've done a good job of that.
"From here on out, we'll see how it goes for the championship."
Two plays during the 4 p.m. game between the Blazers and Cheaters -- the main event of the day, as it was billed -- stood out, earning standing ovations from the packed crowd at Washington Park. One was a missed dunk from Faried in the final minutes, and the other was a falling-out-of-bounds jumper by Casper Ware Jr. earlier in the fourth quarter. The Long Beach State guard and reigning Big West Player of the Year showed up late to the game and suited up only for the fourth quarter, but, within 10 minutes of his arrival, was on the court and creating offense for his teammates. The behind-the-basket shot was his first of the day.
As for the dunk, with his team up five points with less than two to go, Faried had the opportunity to close out the game with a one-handed alley-oop he had to reach well back for. He jumped so high his armpit appeared to rise above the rim, but he couldn't keep the ball in the basket.
Teammate David Patten, who competed in an unofficial NCAA dunk contest for Weber State in 2007, said it was the best missed dunk he'd ever seen.
One more day of the Drew League regular season remains: Sunday, with the marquee matchup being promoted as "K&E Bulls" against "Problems." Former UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge guard Mike Efevberha is scheduled to suit up for Problems against the Bulls and former Florida International guard Dejon Prejean.
Other highlights Saturday included appearances by Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, Washington Wizards guard Nick Young and Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden.
All four players won their games, Smith and Harden teaming up on "Kings of LA" to come back from a first-brief half deficit to eliminate team "Triple Threat" from playoff contention.
Smith, who made his Drew League debut Saturday, said it was at the top of the list of pro-ams he’s played in over the years, including his hometown Southern Classic Roundball Invitational in Atlanta.
"This is something good and fun for the fans to watch, but, as well, people are trying to win," said Smith, who was dunked on by former Colorado State University-Pueblo standout Kris Lawrie in another one of the day’s highlights. "So they're gonna do whatever it takes to win -- both teams have coaches, so obviously there's a strategy behind everything."