HIDALGO — The Vipers entered the NBA D-League playoffs Tuesday sure that the best of them had yet to be seen.
Because of a late season losing skid that saw them lose seven of their last eight games and a season-long purge by the NBA of their top talent, there was a sense of redemption as they took the State Farm Arena court for Game 1 of a best-of-3 first round playoff series against Iowa.
Redeemed it was, at least for one night, as Rio Grande Valley bombed Iowa 146-135 in Game 1.
The Vipers (31-20) were strong on many fronts. Offensively, they shot 53.8 percent, blitzing yet another opponent from 3-point range (18-for-46 for 39.1 percent). Defensively, they only allowed Iowa the shots they wanted, and while Iowa hit early — anything and everything, even the long 2s and mid-range shots the Vipers are happy to give up — it wasn’t enough.
The Vipers either got dunks, layups at the rim or 3-pointers. It’s what got them off to a 24-8 start this season and it’s what got them an easy first playoff win.
“Iowa chose us as a playoff opponent for a reason, and we gave them a reason why they made a mistake,” said Vipers forward and Houston Rockets assignee Robert Covington, who had 26 points, nine rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks. “We came out this game, made a statement and let them know that it’s not going to be an easy walk.”
The Vipers got production all through the lineup, but perhaps no one’s was as critical as point guard Darius Morris. A top prospect in the D-League, Morris had played well in his first nine games as a Viper but had yet to show the dominance many expected of him.
That changed Tuesday.
Morris was a maestro as a lead guard, the first time he’s truly looked comfortable in the Vipers’ system. The 6-4, 190-pound Michigan product had a team-high 29 points to go with 11 assists and five rebounds. He made 11 of 18 shots, including 3 of 4 3s.
“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.”
The Vipers overcame Iowa’s hot shooting start. The Energy, who made 61 percent of their shots for most of the first three quarters but finished at 51.1 percent, made shots the Vipers wanted them to take. Eventually, Iowa started missing those same shots, as Rio Grande Valley contained Iowa at the rim and the 3-point line.
“We did a really good job of executing how we wanted to execute,” Vipers coach Nevada Smith said. “We did a great job of sticking to the plan. There are going to be times when they hit those shots. Things turned our way and we did a great job of sticking with it.’
Game 2 of the series is noon Saturday at Iowa.
“We stress all year that every game is a singular act," Smith said. "No game dictates the next game.
"There’s a new game coming up and right now Game 1 doesn’t mean anything.”
FAST BREAKS: Iowa was without its top two players. Guard Othyus Jeffers was called up to the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier Tuesday. Forward Glen Rice Jr. was recalled by the Washington Wizards on April 5. … Houston Rockets assignee and Vipers guard Troy Daniels had 26 points on 6-for-20 shooting, including just 5-for-16 from 3. … Rockets general manager Daryl Morey attended the game and sat courtside with Vipers principal owner Alonzo Cantu.
VIPERS 146, ENERGY 135
Owens 13-18 2-4 31, Christopher 12-20 4-4 32, Carmichael 4-8 6-8 14, Ehambe 2-7 0-0 5, Stinson 12-22 3-4 30, Freeman 4-16 5-5 15, Gilchrist 2-4 0-0 4, Boone 1-2 0-0 2, Lucas 1-3 0-0 2.
RIO GRANDE VALLEY (146)
Covington 11-19 1-1 26, Bishop Jr. 7-13 0-0 18, Hunt 8-12 0-4 16, Daniels 5-18 9-10 26, Morris 11-18 4-5 29, Hagins 3-4 0-0 6, Parrom 4-9 0-0 10, Spencer 2-3 0-0 4, Talton 5-8 0-0 11
Iowa 38 33 29 35 — 135
Rio Grande Valley 38 40 36 32 — 146
3-Point Goals_Iowa 12-31 (Owens 2-4, Christopher 4-7, Ehambe 1-5, Stinson 3-4, Freeman 2-9, Lucas 0-2). Rio Grande Valley 18-46 (Covington 3-9, Bishop 4-6, Daniels 5-16, Morris 3-4, Parrom 2-7, Spencer 0-1, Talton 1-3). Fouled Out_Freeman. Rebounds_Iowa 44 (Carmichael 14), Rio Grande Valley 46 (Hunt 10). Assists_Iowa 21 (Stinson 8), Rio Grande Valley 29 (Morris 11). Total Fouls_Iowa 20. Rio Grande Valley 18.