Before the Rio Grande Valley Vipers went on a late season skid, losing eight of their final nine games, they were battling for the top seed in the D-League in the hope of holding their first-round fate in their very own hands. With an uptempo offense that we've never seen before, they made a killing off of shooting opponents out of the gym, firing up threes to their heart's content. For 42 games, it worked like a charm. However, when that weapon started to malfunction heading into the playoffs, they had little to fall back on, and thus the red flag had been raised.
The Iowa Energy, owners of the third overall seed, fancied their chances against the slumping Vipers and opted to make them their first-round opponent. Yet heading into the first game in the series on Tuesday night, they were dealt with a pair of devastating gut punches that left them keeling over: The Minnesota Timberwolves had called up their MVP, Othyus Jeffers, and the Washington Wizards wanted their 2013 second-round draft pick, Glen Rice Jr., back in uniform.
Without the team's two leading scorers, the Energy find themselves with their backs up against the wall, hoping that someone else on their roster can pick up the slack. While they have other formidable options, such as Moses Ehambe and Patrick Christopher, a squad that once looked ready to make a deep post-season run now faced many questions. To make matters worse, they were going up against a team that, with a hint of confidence, could make easy pickings of any series.
Last night, the Vipers took advantage of the Energy's misfortune, winning the first game of the series by a final score of 146-135.
The Vipers got back to their old ways, knocking down 18 threes (on 46 attempts) and putting a huge point total up on the board. The Energy battled with them all night long, hitting 51 percent of their shots and taking 25 free throws, but they simply didn't have enough in the tank to keep it going. Patrick Christopher cooled off after a blazing start, scoring just nine points on 3-for-9 shooting in the second half, and had it not been for Larry Owens, who racked up 20 points in the final two quarters, the game would've been over much earlier.
The Vipers got great contributions from their two Houston Rockets assignees, Robert Covington and Troy Daniels, who combined for 52 points. But it was their late season acquisition, Darius Morris, who stole the show. In 30 minutes, Morris scored a season-high 29 points on 11-for-18 shooting from the field and 3-for-4 from three. He also dished out 11 assists and grabbed five rebounds.
Since joining the team, Morris has been out of his depth. As a slasher who prefers to avoid shooting threes unless he has to, he was an odd fit in Nevada Smith's high octane system, and the result showed. In seven regular season games, Morris shot 4.7 threes per contest, connecting on just 17.9 percent of them. But last night, he finally looked comfortable in a Vipers' red and white. He ran the team perfectly, getting everyone involved by handing out six assists in the first quarter, and then he got rolling himself by pushing the ball in transition, attacking the paint in half-court sets and settling for threes when the defense sagged off of him.
After the game, Morris admitted that, after an up-and-down start with his new team, he's starting to find his feet, via The Monitor:
"Things are really starting to open up for me as far as knowing personnel," Morris said. "We’re really learning each other and they’re learning me."
With the loss of Aaron Brooks, who was traded before the trade deadline, the Rockets recalled rookie Isaiah Canaan to make him their third-string point guard. According to head coach Nevada Smith, Canaan was the best point guard in the D-League, so losing him left a gaping hole in their offense. With Morris they have a fringe NBA player and someone who could indeed lead them back to the D-League Finals, but his inability to consistently stretch the floor has proven to be a detriment to the team. However, it looks like he may have finally turned the corner, which could make the difference in this series. For them to advance, the trio of Robert Covington, Troy Daniels and Darius Morris will have to be on top form, something we got a taste of in their victory last night.
The Vipers may have gotten the confidence booster they need, which is a scary thought.