Success has been a by-product of the Santa Cruz Warriors inaugural season in the NBA Development League. A championship would be incalculable.
No one knew what to expect when the Golden State Warriors moved their D-League team from Bismarck, N.D., to Surf City before the start of the 2012-13 season and built a new arena in three months. But expectations have been exceeded no matter what the team does in the NBA Finals, which start Thursday evening at Kaiser Permanente Arena when the Warriors host the Rio Valley Grande Vipers in the opener of the best-of-three series for the championship.
There were 20 sellouts in 24 games during the regular season, and near-capacity crowds attended the other six games -- including two playoff victories -- at the local arena, where the Warriors have a 21-5 record. They finished second (32-18) in the Western Division to the Bakersfield Jam (36-14) during the regular season and earned the No. 3 seed in the playoffs in which they are 4-0 after dispatching the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and defending champion Austin Toros.
Now they have only one game left at home, and they hope that is the game that propels them to the title. The second game is Saturday in Hidalgo, Texas, where the Vipers are 22-5, and a third -- if necessary -- there on Monday.
"We're looking forward to opening at home in front of our fans and hope they get us going," Coach Nate Bjorkgren said after a practice this week. "The players are enthusiastic and ready to play. The atmosphere just keeps getting better as we keep going, and the guys know it and thrive on it, and the whole thing brings more energy to the process."
Bjorkgren, who was a first-year head coach in the D-League last season when the team was the Dakota Wizards before the move, knows it won't be easy but is confident after his second year on the job.
"We're not finished. We're all in," he said. "We've just got to keep it going. We just have to step up even more than we have all year. We have 12 talented guys, and they all stepped up at different times. They really compete, even in practice, and they need to compete to stay at this level (of play). And that's what they're doing. We're trying to win every game, not looking ahead, not concerned with losing."
RGV, the No. 2 seed in the playoffs in which they are also 4-0, finished the season with the second best record (35-15 to the Jam's 36-14 mark), then ousted the Maine Red Claws and Tulsa 66ers (who eliminated Bakersfield).
This is the third time in four years the Vipers -- an affiliate of the Houston Rockets -- have been in the Finals, defeating Tulsa in 2010 and losing to the Iowa Energy in 2011. Vipers coach Nick Nurse was the coach of the Energy's championship team, then left to become coach of RGV. And Bjorkgren was Nurse's top assistant on that Iowa team.
The Vipers hope to get revenge for losing the season series 2-1 to the Warriors. They scored the most points against the Warriors this season during a 131-100 victory at the Kaiser Arena on March 1. The Warriors reversed the score the next night in Santa Cruz -- 130-112, then won the rubber match 103-85 on March 15 in Hidalgo.
"We'll be paying attention to detail on what we have to do -- who and how we'll play certain individuals," Bjorkgren said about the Vipers. "We want to win, and we just have to turn it up.The keys are playing team defense and controlling the glass. We have to rebound. They're a talented team or wouldn't be here. In their last three games, they had a big rebounding advantage. We have to do that against them ... we want the opposite results with us controlling the boards."
The big rebounders for RGV have been 6-11 center Tim Ohlbrecht (7.5 rpg) of Germany, 7-foot Chris Daniels (6-5 rpg) from Texas A&M Corpus Christi and a pair of 6-6 guards -- Glen Rice Jr. and D.J. Kennedy.
Rice, who played at Georgia Tech and is the son of former NBA star Glen Rice, has been averaging 8.5 rebounds along with 23 points and 4.5 assists during the playoffs. Kennedy, who came to the Vipers in a trade from the Erie BayHawks on March 5, has been averaging 10.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 21.3 points in the playoffs after averaging only 11.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in 14 games after the trade. Kennedy, who played at St. John's, scored 28 points in the series clincher against Tulsa.
The Warriors will counter with their own big men -- 6-11 Hilton Armstrong (9.5 rpg), 6-10 Jeremy Tyler (7.8 rpg), 6-8 Taylor Griffin (6.5 rpg), 6-8 Lance Goulbourne (6.5 rpg), 6-7 Darington Hobson (5.5 rpg) and 6-4 guard Travis Leslie (5.8 rpg) -- in the battle to "control the glass."