HIDALGO — The Vipers won a playoff game Saturday because of their defense. On Monday, they lost the season because of it.
Two days removed from playing arguably its best defensive game of the season, Rio Grande Valley was torched by Santa Cruz in Game 3 of the best-of-3 series Monday. The Warriors put on a clinic offensively, shredding the Vipers’ attempt at defense to win 147-128 at State Farm Arena and advance to the D-League finals against Fort Wayne later this week.
Santa Cruz shot 57.9 percent, including 47.4 percent from 3, and assisted on 31 of 55 field goals. Six Warriors scored in double figures, three scored 23 or more points, and Santa Cruz scored at least 36 points in every quarter.
What hurt the Vipers the most was all the easy points Santa Cruz earned. The Warriors had 78 points in the paint and 28 off free throws.
“We were too loose on the defensive end,” said Houston Rockets assignee and Vipers guard Isaiah Canaan, whose game-high 35 points and five assists went for naught. “We didn’t rotate. We were fine the first wave of the defense, but we just didn’t take care of the backside, and they capitalized. We had to tighten up and we didn’t.”
Offense wasn’t the issue for the Vipers; it hardly is. Rio Grande Valley (33-23) shot 43.5 percent, and that number was hurt by a constant rush of long bombs when the game was well in hand late in the game. At times, the ball didn’t move as isolation was in heavy favor, but the Vipers got their shots and made them.
What it came down to, again, was defense. At times the Vipers have been strong defensively this season. But too often, they have been lethargic, and that was the case Monday in a game that decided their season.
“We weren’t talking, we weren’t active,” Vipers coach Nevada Smith said. “And offensively, we kept waiting, waiting, and waiting for that big run, and it never really came. We never could get over the hump.
“When you play against good teams that have good guards that know how to play and know how to pass and how to score, and you let them jump on you, it’s going to be a climb.”
Rio Grande Valley got down by 14 late in the first quarter and faced an uphill climb the rest of the way. The Vipers as close as nine early in the fourth quarter after the deficit had ballooned to 19 for the second time of the night.
But the Warriors’ Seth Curry squashed any hopes of a dramatic Vipers rally. Stephen Curry’s younger brother was terrific in the final period, scoring 15 of his 28 points in the session and taking control of Santa Cruz’s fate. Curry hit 12 of 21 shots, including 3 of 8 from 3, to go with eight assists. His backcourt mate Cameron Jones added 24 points on 8 for 16 shooting for good measure.