SANTA CRUZ — The Santa Cruz Warriors are making the final tweaks and modifications to their game as game one of the NBA D-League Finals is right around the corner.
After carrying a three-game losing streak, and losing five out of their last six, the Warriors have looked unbeatable while sweeping the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and the Austin Toros in the first and second round, respectively.
“I think it was just that time to get the losses out of the way,” said Warriors point guard Stefhon Hannah. “To get all the negativity and B.S. out of there, and just focus on winning that championship and coming together.”
The former Missouri Tiger was named the NBA D-League Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row on Friday morning before they closed out their second round series against the Toros in Santa Cruz. He has been averaging 18 points and 4.8 assists since the beginning of the playoffs.
Hannah, who has been a major leader for the Warriors since the beginning of training camp, said that the award was an honor, but he couldn’t have done it without his teammates.
“It’s my teammates too,” said Hannah. “You have some great defenders like Mickell (Gladness) and Hilton (Armstrong). They make my job a lot easier. It’s a great award, but my teammates are a part of that award. Without them it wouldn’t be possible, no matter how good a defender I am.”
That team defense helped the Sea Dubs take the 103-97 come-from-behind victory against the Toros on Friday.
Hannah attributes it to the connection that these 12 guys have made throughout the season.
“During the season we were cool,” said Hannah. “But I think we came together as a tight unit in the past weeks. On the road we go to the movies together and we go out to eat as a team. It’s great. You don’t usually get that when you’re dealing with grown men, so for all of us to come together like that is cool.”
That unity will have to be in full effect against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who have also swept both of their first round opponents.
After earning the second seed in the D-League Playoffs the Vipers have bullied their way to the Finals.
One particular facet of the game that the Vipers have controlled is rebounding. In the Vipers last series they out rebounded the Tulsa 66ers by 34 rebounds.
The Warriors won the season series against the Vipers 2-1. The first two games took place in Santa Cruz in a strange back-to-back series.
In the first game the Vipers scored a D-League high 73 points in the first half and ended up dropping in 131 points by games end, the most points the Warriors have given up all season.
The second game was a switch of roles as the Warriors scored a season-high 40 points in the opening quarter and 63 in the first half. They ran the Vipers out of the building by the final score of 130-112.
“We have to come out and play team defense,” said Warriors head coach Nate Bjorkgren. “They’re a team that wants to play very fast. We also have to control the glass.”
One big weapon missing from the Vipers arsenal is the “Mini Mamba” Andrew Goudelock. The 6-foot-3 guard was called up by the Los Angeles Lakers after the injury to Kobe Byrant.
In the three regular season matchups Goudelock averaged 24.3 points against the Warriors.
Although the Vipers will be missing him, they also have players like D.J. Kennedy and Glenn Rice who have averaged 21.3 and 23 points respectively.
“Those guys are talented players,” said Bjorkgren. “But you don’t worry about just one player. Just like every other team we’ve faced they’re going to put five guys on the floor that can do things.”
The Warriors know that game one of the best-of-three-games series is critical now that they do not have home-court advantage.
“They understand what it takes,” said Bjorkgren of his players. “Whether you’re at home or on the road. They’ve experienced both sides of it, so they just need a floor with two hoops on it.”
Hannah also said that game one is critical to the Warriors coming away with a D-League Championship.
“It’s always critical,” said Hannah. “We’ve done it the first two series, so we know we have to win that first game whether it’s at home or away. It’s our main focus to win the first and the second game.”
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