The playoff series between the top-seeded Oklahoma City Blue and 4th-seeded Santa Cruz Warriors commences April 5th at 7:30 EST where 2 of the 3 most dominant defenses of the regular season shall lay siege. While both teams have excelled defensively, the playoff matchup still offers a rather significant clash of team identities that not only should reward all viewers with a potpourri of styles to enjoy but also should push OKC head coach Mark Daigneault and Santa Cruz head coach Casey Hill to the brink of their coaching acumen.
The Oklahoma City Blue’s primary strategy for the 2016-17 season has been to overwhelm opponents with the players’ wingspans and strength on both the perimeter and interior areas of the floor. For the majority of the season, Coach Daigneault had the advantage of spelling NBADL MVP candidate Dakari Johnson with a fellow 7 foot tall former five-star recruit Kaleb Tarczewski as the sixth man. The majority of NBADL rosters would struggle to find one center with the size to not get dominated around the rim by Dakari Johnson, but the availability of “Zeus” off the bench gave the Blue a nearly unfair mismatch advantage for at least 20 of each game’s total minutes.
Unfortunately for the Blue, Tarczewski departed the squad to sign overseas in Italy with only a couple of weeks remaining in the season. The Blue continued with their winning ways with relatively little drop-off in play after the departure, but Coach Daigneault will still have more frontcourt depth questions than he previously prepared for. Recent signee Solomon Jones still has been getting acclimated to the team and lanky defender Kameron Woods still has struggled to reliably contribute offensively. Yet, the Blue still should have confidence against the Warriors as long as the team’s two defensive lynchpins, Dakari Johnson and Alex Caruso, can maintain form.
Johnson in the 2016-17 season has been the landlord of the paint in the Blue’s favor. The 7 foot tall, 255 pound center has bothered dozens of prospective attempts in the lane by just being too strong and long to successfully rise over for layups. The 21 year old’s improving sense of positioning and verticality has translated into stout rim protection that Johnson’s lack of leaping ability previously rendered null. Johnson’s MVP-caliber impact naturally broadens to the offensive side of the ball too. Often the only avenue for an efficient scoring look in Oklahoma City’s offense, Johnson has demoralized opponents with his deadly soft hook in the low post.
Johnson’s 60% True Shooting Percentage now leads the Blue roster, despite Johnson also handling the highest usage rate of the roster. The Blue rely on close to a defensively stellar 20-10 performance from Dakari Johnson for almost every game and, luckily, Dakari has answered the bell with great frequency.
Dakari Johnson is the Blue’s best player, but he probably often thanks Alex Caruso for easing the workload, especially on the defensive end. Perimeter defenders rarely have the ability to control enough space in the half-court to impact offenses enough to warrant strong Defensive Player of the Year consideration. However, for this season, Caruso probably qualifies for an exception to the axiom. Caruso wins nearly every on-ball matchup he is assigned to and seldom lets his man shoot uncontested. His 6’5” height and phenomenal hands relentlessly obscure sight-lines and passing lanes, which drive opposing offenses to a crawl.
Caruso led the NBADL in total steals and finished 2nd in steal percentage. While steals can often hide the fact a defender whiffs out of position multiple times before getting just one of those steals, Caruso maintains discipline and uses his fabulous instincts to time his decisions to pounce on the ball. Offensively, Caruso takes a more passive role as a willing ball-mover and solid spot-up shooter but, with Dakari Johnson and professional bucket filler Reggie Williams in tow, Caruso is rarely needed to do more. His lockdown defense provides plenty of value on its own.
The Santa Cruz Warriors famously adopt the philosophies of the parent Golden State team, but no one can look at the results of the system and declare it a failure. Santa Cruz care less about its volume of shots beyond the arc and more about emphasizing the ball and player movement of its parent’s ideologies. Despite lacking great one-on-one scorers for most of the season, Santa Cruz generate an above-average offense by leaning on a chemistry of movement that few defenses can reciprocate well enough to impede. Now with the late-season signings of Jabari Brown and Cleanthony Early, Santa Cruz may also have the isolation threats necessary to save the rare possessions the system cannot generate a clean look.
Diminutive point guard Phil Pressey represents the face of the team for the season as he stepped into a rarely-before-seen role as a more aggressive initiator of the team’s offense. Always known as a prototypical floor general, Pressey pressed against his knock of being a passive non-scoring threat by opting for most of the season to be the player to take the more difficult shots for Santa Cruz when certain moments necessitated so.
The scorching hot play of Jabari Brown off the bench has relieved much of that burden in the closing stretch of the season, which may lend Pressey more comfort in a more balanced role. However, if Santa Cruz ever call upon Pressey for some more bailing out against the formidable Oklahoma City defense, the team should be certain he will not shy away at least.
Santa Cruz will be happy to know March’s NBADL Western Conference Player of the Month Damian Jones will be around to try and dominate April as well. The former first round pick offers Santa Cruz one of the few big-men in the league who could challenge the reign of Dakari Johnson inside with any plausibility. Jones averaged 17.6 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game in March to earn the POTM accolade. The assurance of Jones’s presence for the playoffs also allows Coach Casey Hill to deploy rim-protecting demon Chris Obekpa in more strategic moments and not subject the undersized Obekpa to life in the low-post with Dakari Johnson, away from his help duties.
Jones will need to maintain the March aggressiveness rolling to and attacking the rim on the offensive end to draw enough gravity inside. That gravity could then disrupt the help schemes of the Blue enough to let sharpshooter Scott Wood, Pressey, and Brown make some hay the Warriors way.