Like Elton John said, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” He may not have had an NBA G League game in mind when he penned the hit song in 1973 (maybe the clairvoyant Kyle Collinsworth filled him in), but boy did the January 20th, 2018 edition of the Texas Legends (17-11) vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers (18-12) deliver some serious entertainment.
After 48 wild, wild, wild minutes, the scoreboard displayed the final score of Legends 144, the Valley Vipers 141.
The league’s two highest-scoring teams certainly didn’t disappoint another sellout crowd. Battling not just for rivalrous bragging rights but more importantly first place in the Southwest Division, the Legends survived a last-ditch comeback effort to win their fifth straight. Guided by the five game winning streak–Texas’ longest in half a decade– the Legends pulled percentage points ahead of the Houston Rockets affiliate to claim first place.
“It’s pretty big,” Donald Sloan said about achieving the top spot in the division. “Any chance you get to be the team looked at as number one, record wise, you put yourself in a position to cause more attention and have people look at you more. It’s been a while since the team has been number one so to be a part of that is something special.”
As division opponents, the two teams will play four times during the course of the year. The Valley Vipers hosted the first two and won both. Moving the season series to Frisco– a microcosm of the overall schedule– the Legends took care of business in an absolute thriller.
Sloan has come alive in the past two games, regaining his health as well as taking over as the number one offensive option with Justin Dentmon out. He followed up his season-high combo of 34 points and nine assists on Friday with 35 points and 12 assists Saturday. It’s the second time a Legend has recorded double-digit assists this season and the NBA veteran, who also made all eight of his free throws, is starting to look like his old, dominant self.
“(I’m) just finally getting healthy, man. Not coming in one game and sitting out four or halfway playing one game and sitting out a month. Just getting my health right and feeling good. The next thing is to try and produce a little bit.”
Just behind Sloan’s big night stands Jameel Warney and his 33 points. Warney also knocked down another three ball, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out his penultimate total of assists this season with six.
Brandon Ashley and Johnathan Motley both battled foul trouble in the point-stuffed, up and down affair, but Ashley nevertheless managed a season-high 27 points, 22 of which came in the first half. He also grabbed eight rebounds and for the second straight game had three blocks and three steals while making 12-of-15 shots.
Motley came back down to earth but still posted 15 points and five rebounds in just 16 minutes.
The game obviously didn’t hurt for storylines, but in a sort of bizarre twist, Rio Grande geared up without four rotation players. Injuries kept the Vipers to an eight man rotation, presenting an interesting dynamic that the Legends appeared to have taken full advantage of until a late Rio surge.
“It’s tough because you mentally prep for guys and have your mind set on certain things,” Sloan, who also led the game with a +11 plus-minus, explained. “When things change at the last minute, it kind of puts you in a funk. It puts you in a space where you kind of let your guard down and you kind of relax a little bit and then that’s what type of night it is. Guys that are on those teams are pros and they definitely had a lot of guys step up and play like pros. No matter what league it is, when guys get their opportunity they want to show why they should be getting minutes.”
Sloan’s backcourt mate Wade Baldwin IV rounded out the starters with 14 points and five assists while J.J. Avila once again wore his sixth man cap on his way to a six point, 10 rebound display, the latter tops for the season. As I said in last night’s recap, season-high’s are being set pretty much every night by one, two or five different Texas Legends players.
Xavier Johnson had eight points and seven rebounds, including a clutch, game-clinching offensive board in the game’s final moments. Clinging to a one point lead, he turned a Baldwin miss into a rebound-and-pass to Sloan, who knocked down a three-pointer that would prove to be the deciding bucket.
Prince Williams matched his season-high of six points for the second straight game. The Legends vastly outrebounded Rio Grande 47-33, taking advantage of a short Valley Vipers rotation. The teams will meet for the fourth and final time, at least of the regular season, on March 23rd on the eve of the season’s final scheduled contest.
On top of a scintillating game, Saturday night was Military Appreciation Night at Dr Pepper Arena. Out of all the philanthropic, charitable community events the Legends organization puts on, this one is hard to beat.
For the 2018 version of the popular occurence, the team honored fallen Lt. Jonathan Rozier. Rozier graduated from Texas A&M and shares that characteristic with Sloan, who definitely resonated with the hero.
“We should appreciate (our soldiers) a lot more with what we do because without them, it’s just a game. We wouldn’t even be able to enjoy and take the court the way that we do. Just thinking about that before the game kind of puts things in perspective.”
The season-long five game home stand continues on Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. against the Reno Bighorns (16-11), G League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings. It’s the first of three meetings between Texas and Reno this season and the Legends will look to run their winning streak to six games.