Johnson’s return not enough to power Austin past OKC in 130-118 defeat

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Sitting at 2-3 on the young season, the Austin Spurs announced a major transaction to add a beloved veteran to the team. Combo guard and reigning NBA G-League Finals MVP Nick Johnson returned to Cedar Park for his third stint with the Spurs on Sunday, hoping to add his championship pedigree to the new-look squad.

Despite Johnson’s 22 points and nine assists, the Oklahoma City Blue (6-1) skated past the Spurs (2-4), 130-118, to hand the team consecutive losses for the first time since March 2018.

“I was just back at home for a little bit working out after San Antonio (camp invite),” Johnson said. “I’ve been checking my options overseas and figured in the meantime, I might as well get some game minutes in to help the team out.”

Containing Oklahoma City’s dominant frontcourt was a hardship for Austin’s bigs in the loss. Former Texas A&M standout center Tyler Davis scored at will in the paint all afternoon, posting 29 points and 13 rebounds on 12-of-14 shooting. Power forward Richard Solomon added a litany of athletic dunks and alley-oop finishes to secure a 22-14 double-double in the definitive victory. Davis, a two-way player for the Thunder, didn’t even miss a shot until six minutes remaining in the contest, sinking 10 field goals in the first half.

“They’re big, they’re physical, and that’s a credit to them and what they do,” head coach Blake Ahearn said. “It’s a good matchup and they’re very good players. It’s a very well-coached, disciplined team on both sides of the ball, and the good thing is we got them three more times this year.”

The Spurs overcame their first hurdle in the first quarter, roaring back from an early 7-point deficit to claim a 28-26 lead after 12 minutes. But then the defense struggled to contain high-percentage baskets, and when they did, they were often assessed fouls. At one point in the game, the free throw disparity was 16-1, a claim which caused Ahearn to receive a technical foul in the second quarter.

The scoring gap continued to widen as a function of time, and Austin found itself trailing by 66-51 at the half and by as many as 19 during the contest.

The offense ignited for Austin after halftime, as the Spurs scored 13 points in about 3:40 of clock time, sinking 3-of-4 threes during this span. However, the defense simultaneously suffered numerous lapses guarding the Blue’s stellar ball movement, and Oklahoma City continued its scoring rampage as well. The scoring explosion in the quarter resulted in a 37-33 Oklahoma City advantage, providing the Blue a 19-point lead heading into the fourth.

“I wasn’t much help tonight (defensively), especially in the fourth quarter,” Johnson said. “We’ll credit that to rust, but I’m always myself. I do pride myself on defense and being a vocal guy out there.”

Austin finally strung together a magnificent comeback effort in the fourth, escaping from a 19-point hole to bring the crowd to its feet. Shooting guard Jeff Ledbetter caught fire, connecting on three 3-pointers in four possessions, including a heat check heave from the right wing. The deficit was cut to 113-106 with under seven minutes remaining, but Davis and the Blue regained their composure in the paint to counter the Ledbetter barrage. With 3:38 left, Bryce Alford hit his sixth triple of the night for an insurmountable 14-point lead.

“I don’t know if he was asleep in the first three quarters, but the thing about Jeff is whether he makes 10 in a row or misses 10 in a row, it doesn’t matter to him,” Ahearn said. “He’s going to shoot them, we’re going to let him shoot them, and that’s what he does. And he brings so much more to our team than just shooting the basketball. There’s a lot of things he brings that don’t show up on (the stat sheet).”

The loss sets Austin to a 2-4 record, ending a two-game winning streak at the HEB Center. History was made at this very arena Sunday, as three female referees officiated the game, serving as the first occurrence of such in NBA or NBA G-League history. Moving forward, Austin looks to shake off the loss in the Sunshine State, as a battle with the Lakeland Magic awaits Tuesday.

“It’s a learning process,” Ahearn said of the slow start. “We’ve got 44 more games. It’s a long season, so you just take it one step at a time. It will all take care of itself in the end.”

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