Guard Juan Toscano sticks his arm up to deflect a pass in the third quarter of the Santa Cruz Warriors’ home playoff game.
It’s Friday night, March, 29, and Toscano corrals the ball, sending his team into a full-on sprint and into its transition offense, with the Warriors hunting for mismatches, and ready to feast on the opposing Oklahoma City Blue’s tiniest of miscommunications. Once he reaches the key, Toscano pitches a pass to Damion Lee, who draws a couple defenders while striding toward the rim. Lee then spins and tosses the ball underhand to Antonius Cleveland, who’s waiting in the corner for a three-pointer. Cleveland hesitates, drawing contact from the nearest Blue defender. He sinks the shot as an official blows his whistle, signaling a shooting foul. Cleveland hits his free throw to complete a four-point play, Santa Cruz’s second of the game, and it puts the Warriors up 94-68 with four minutes left to play in the third quarter.
The team’s big four-point plays epitomized its performance in the Western Conference Semifinals—dizzying skill, mixed with a little bit of luck, for a show-stopping display explosive fireworks. The Santa Cruz Warriors went on to win 117-102 on their home floor at Kaiser Permanente Arena, behind a hot start and impressive shot making.
The team may need more of all that this upcoming week, if it wants to keep its season alive. With Friday night’s win behind them, the Warriors now move on to play the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Tuesday, April 2 on the road in the Western Conference Finals. The winner of that game will go on to play in the development league championship.
Toscano, who finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, grew up in Castro Valley in the East Bay, not far from Oakland—home to the Golden State Warriors, Santa Cruz’s big-brother NBA affiliate. Toscano’s family and friends showed up Friday night to watch him play, he says, adding that he’s honored to be a part of the organization this year, given his local ties.
“It is a pretty special thing,” he says. “But that’s in the back of my mind right now. I just want to win a championship. And after that, I’ll look back and reminisce.”
Santa Cruz attacked the basket early Friday, repeatedly sprinting the length of the court for transition points, cutting to get open shots and moving the ball. That got the Warriors off to a hot start, giving them a commanding 27-point lead to close out the first half. Santa Cruz Head Coach Aaron Miles says the team wanted to make as big of a statement as possible from the opening tip-off. The Blue had been able to overcome a 23-point first-half deficit in its previous match three nights earlier against the Salt Lake City Stars.
When it came to making shots this past Friday night, the Blue were cold from the start. The Warriors weren’t. The Blue shot 29 percent from three. The Warriors shot 43 percent on three—59 percent in the first half. The team’s strong shooting performance masked some of its lazy transition defense later in the game. Santa Cruz could do well to cut out such lapses when it travels to Texas to take on the Vipers Tuesday night.
The Vipers have long excelled at maximizing their offensive efficiency. They led the league in three-pointers this season, just like they usually do—and just as their affiliate Houston Rockets have at the NBA level.
Averse to long two-pointers, the Vipers have developed a reputation for shooting as many lay-ups and three-pointers as possible. It appears to have paid dividends. The Vipers have seen as much team success as anyone, going 2-2 in the championship game since 2010.
I asked previous Santa Cruz Warriors Coach Casey Hill for his take of the Vipers’ overall strategy back in 2014,, and he told me then that it was one way to approach team-building, but that the Warriors had a different one: Santa Cruz was focused on developing players, whereas Rio Grande Valley was using its unit as a laboratory to develop a system and a philosophy.
As was the case several years ago, that philosophy is helping to power an offensive juggernaut at the development level. Miles, the Warriors’ current coach, says his team has to be ready for that kind of attack, as well as for Viper personnel more than capable of carrying it out.
“Lay-ups and three pointers. And everyone they get—they give them confidence to shoot it, and they move the ball well, and they attack the paint and do kick-out [passes],” Miles says. “No mid-range [shots]. It’s worked for ’em.”
The Santa Cruz Warriors play the Rio Grande Valley Vipers Tuesday, April 2 at 6 p.m. Pacific Time. The game will air on ESPNU.