Pulling up to Dr Pepper Arena two days after Thanksgiving and barely needing a sweatshirt, I didn’t realize the game itself would be such a breeze. The Texas Legends absolutely dominated the Salt Lake City Stars, D-League affiliate of the Utah Jazz, on Saturday night, just 72 hours after incurring defeat at the hands of the very same team.
In front of a packed house, the home team played their hearts out, en route to a 33-point win, 117-84, to improve to 2-3 on the 2016-2017 season. On media day, I asked Head Coach Bob MacKinnon what we can expect from his team this year.
“We’re gonna play hard. We’re gonna play hard. We’re gonna play hard and put it out for you everyday.”
His group went above and beyond in this contest, beating the Stars to every loose ball, hands in the passing lanes all night long, players everywhere. It was a sight to see, complete domination on both sides of the ball for the home team.
The Legends recorded 14 steals and 7 blocked shots. In comparison, the Stars had 5 and 1 in those categories.
At the forefront of this effort was the big man in the middle, Jameel Warney. The 6-foot-7, 259-pounder bullied his way in the post all night as the Legends pulled away for the blowout win.
“We just remembered what happened in Utah,” says Warney, who finished with 24 points, 9 rebounds (5 offensive) and 4 assists. “The coaches definitely didn’t want us to forget about it. We knew we had to play well, we knew we made mistakes and they’re not a 30 points better team than us.”
“We just knew we had to keep playing hard and show who we are.”
Returning home provided a big boost for the squad, Warney adds. ““It was good. We had a three game road trip, I mean, for a whole week we weren’t here. It was great to get back home on Thanksgiving, relax, and get ready for this game.”
Again, it’s not lost on Warney and his teammates what happened just days prior to this vengeful matchup. “We kind of owed them a game, they beat us by a pretty good margin in Utah.”
The Stony Brook alum was remarkably efficient from the field, hitting 8 of his 13 field goal attempts. “I mean I’m shooting the ball from five feet away,” Warney laughs. “It’s about getting in the right shots, getting my legs under my hook shots and being aggressive.”
“We have a lot of good players on the team so you can’t just double team one person. I mean you have one of the league’s best scorers in Manny (Harris, who had 24 points himself with 10 rebounds and 4 assists) so you can help him out by getting a few points.”
Warney was an indispensable +40 during his 25 minutes on the court. C.J. Williams was +30 for himself in his 30 minutes of play. Williams says the chemistry of this group is unlike anything he has experienced before.
“It’s actually rather interesting,” Williams says. “I’ve never seen a group of guys, especially in their 20’s, that have gotten along so well off the court. You can see it on the court because guys are unselfish. Nobody is really going out just to get their own.”
One of the unique parts of a Texas Legends game –well, besides the gigantic Vertical Rush slide behind the basket– is the post game meet n’ greets. Fans have permission to storm the court and chat up their favorite Legends players.
A young fan celebrated his 8th birthday in style, taking in a big Legends victory with his mother. After the game, he got an autograph from Williams, who upon learning of the occasion, belted out a personalized rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ with the wide eyed youngster.
“Best day ever!” exclaims mom.
I talked to Williams earlier in the week about his blocked shot capabilities after he had 2 against Windy City in a Legends win. He had 3 tonight, leading all 21 competitors. He attributes this to timing and a feel for the game, which Warney echoed when I asked him about his post game prowess.
“It’s just getting a feel for the game. Obviously I watch a lot of players,” Warney said as teammate and Mavericks 2nd round draft pick A.J. Hammons butts in. Hammons joined the conversation just long enough to poke at Warney and insist Jameel’s success comes from watching him.
“It’s a lot of work, just working out all the time with my coaches, learning new moves, staying basic to the right hook or left hook, just getting ready to be in the right position,” Warney continues.
The big man also did something rather foreign to big men who play the game of basketball. He hit 8-of-11 free throws, a crisp 73 percent. He works hard on the craft, debunking the DeAndre Jordan “lost cause” theory at the charity stripe.
“(I worked on) a new mechanic with (Legends Assistant Coach) Zachary Chu. Just countless shots, following shots. I was a poor free throw shooter back in college so I just work on it every game,” Warney explains.
“I mean, that’s free points over there!”
The Legends play their first consecutive home games of the 2016-2017 season, continuing play Thursday at 7:00 PM against the Greensboro Swarm, affiliate of the Charlotte Hornets.