Vipers, Warriors to battle for trip to G League finals

EDINBURG — When the Santa Cruz Warriors and RGV Vipers take to the floor, it will be two teams that played three tight ballgames during the regular season.

RGV won the season series 2-1, with the Vipers winning 96-95 at Santa Cruz and 97-89 at home before falling in the final meeting 92-91 at home. The Vipers were 3-1 overall in games decided by just one point, also beating Salt Lake City 103-102 on the road and the next night winning at South Bay 128-127.

The teams will meet for the G League’s Western Conference championship at 8 tonight. The winner will play next week for the G League championship, where RGV will be looking to clinch its third such title.

“They know what we have and what we do, and we know what they have and do,” said Vipers guard Gary Payton II. “We’re very familiar with each other.”

Neither team reached the 100-point mark in any of the matchups, and that is something Vipers coach Joseph Blair is just fine with. Even though the Vipers are known for their high-powered offense, Blair is focused on defense.

“We lost only one game when we kept our opponent under 100 this year, so we’re definitely OK with that,” Blair said. “Santa Cruz is a solid team and played great all year, and we expect them to come out and put their best foot forward.

“They seem to generate their offense off other team’s turnovers and that seemed to be an Achilles’ heel for us during part of the year. Keeping any opponent under 100 points in this league usually means you’re in the game, and we’ve had games where we’ve done that, but we’ve scored well past 120. That’s the type of effort we’d like to see.”

Payton has been the floor general since Day One, usually spreading the wealth with crisp passes, but making sure defenses have to cover him, as well, with his range and ability to penetrate — either making off-balanced shots or sending a lob up for big men Isaiah Hartenstein or Chris Walker.

“C-Walk is good as gold making those exciting plays,” Payton said. “It’s one of the things we live for to see what he’s going to do next.”

But Payton will take over a game when he needs to and look to score, especially during the game’s final minutes, something he did with efficiency the first time the Vipers and Warriors met.

“Michael (Frazier) and Isaiah (Hartenstein) will get it going early and get everyone up,” Payton said. “I’ll be aggressive from the start, but they’ll get things going and that gives me the opportunity to be even more aggressive in the second half or late in the game.”

Blair said that the combination of Payton and Walker are great to have, especially this far into the season.

“Gary has been an asset to this team since right away, making an impact,” Blair said. “Plus, he does so much off the court.

“Chris, I’ve been with Chris for four years and this is the time Chris likes to shine, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. I think he lives for postseason play and the energy he brings is dynamic.”

During the previous game against Memphis, Walker flew in with one of his patented dunks sending the fans into a frenzy. After the dunk, he celebrated on the way back to playing defense, wanting to enjoy a little of the moment.

“I can certainly appreciate his celebration for his sake, but sure would rather he just run back on defense,” Blair said.