OAKLAND — The Warriors have only lost once since March 12, winning 19 of their past 20 games. That lone defeat came on April 10 to the Utah Jazz — those same Jazz that’ll be in Oracle Arena on Tuesday for Game 1 of the second round.
But don’t take much from that night. The Warriors rested Klay Thompson and, having already clinched the top seed, limited the minutes of their other stars. Similarly, there’s not much to derive from Golden State’s two wins over Utah this season. The Jazz were missing key pieces both nights.
So, more than any of the other West competitors, this postseason matchup arrives with some unknown. But there’s still plenty to dig into in advance of Game 1. Here’s a series preview.
Biggest difference: Pace
This is a Grizzlies-like clash of styles. The Warriors operate best in an up-tempo environment. Not only is it conducive to their skill and shooting, but it helps maximize their league-best efficiency gap. The Warriors averaged 113.2 points per 100 possessions this season, while giving up only 101.1. That plus-12.1 net rating was 4.2 points better than the next closest (Spurs, 7.9). So it only makes sense, within reason, to maximize the number of possessions and expand the game. This season, the Warriors had the fourth quickest pace in the NBA: 102.2 possessions per game.
Utah, meanwhile, is built and trained to strangle the pace. Jazz games only averaged 93.6 possessions this season, the fewest in the NBA. Even Grizzlies games trudged along a tad quicker: 94.7 possessions per.
That divergence has only stretched out in the playoffs. The Warriors-Blazers series was played at a blistering pace of 104.8 possessions in the four games, while the Jazz dragged the Clippers into their preferred style: an average of only 91.7 possessions in the seven games.
More than likely, this Warriors-Jazz series will sit somewhere in the middle. Their three matchups this season averaged 97.5 possessions. But if it tips substantially one way or the other, it should favor the team more familiar with the pace.
How will Utah try to force that style?
A slower pace is often linked to a stingy defense, which the Jazz have. Utah’s defensive rating this season was 102.7, third behind only the Spurs and Warriors. They get back in transition well and either try to force a bad shot or at least make you grate down the shot clock for a better look.
But the Jazz can slow the pace on the offensive end, too. Utah led the league this season in shot attempts during the final four seconds of the shot clock: 8.3 per game. That was more than 10 percent of their attempts. In the Clippers series, they averaged more than 11 shots per game with the shot clock under five.
In contrast, the Warriors only averaged 3.9 shot attempts per game with the shot clock under five, tied for the fewest in the league. Utah is comfortable in that situation, whereas some teams aren’t.
“You have to be locked in on the defensive end (against them), ready to defend for the full 24 seconds,” Draymond Green said. “A lot of teams, you start getting under six seconds and a lot of teams just panic and want to get a shot up. You still have time for two or three more passes to a great shot with that much time left and they understand that.”
The Jazz’s plan, you’d expect, will be simple, especially in a frothing Oracle: slow the game, limit the variables, keep it close deep into the fourth quarter and try to steal wins in crunch time. The Jazz thrived there this season, outscoring teams by 46 points when the game was within five points in the final five minutes. They played 142 such minutes.
Despite some memorable nightmares (the Memphis collapse, the Christmas loss in Cleveland), the Warriors were also solid in the clutch this season, outscoring teams by 31 in 100 such minutes. But they slug along with them a potential problem: Lack of reps. They blow so many teams out, they’re rarely planted in those situations, especially of late. Since the start of March, they’ve only faced 26 clutch minutes, including only two the entire Blazers series. During that same time frame, the Jazz faced 57 clutch minutes, including 18 in the first round against the Clippers, in which they outscored them by 10.
The Warriors want to run away from the Jazz early, nullifying the final five minutes. The Jazz want to remain within striking distance late and then lean on experience to try to spring an unlikely upset.
X-factor: Which DPOY candidate flexes more?
The first round pitted the league’s leading MVP candidates: Russell Westbrook vs James Harden. The second round pits the league’s leading Defensive Player of the Year candidates: Draymond Green vs Rudy Gobert. That’ll be a discussed storyline, even if reality can’t pit them directly against each other: “I can’t play defense against his defense,” Draymond Green said. “It don’t matter.”
What does matter is their separate impact. Both are disruptive forces, despite going about it differently. Gobert’s defensive strength is his size. He’s 7-foot-1 with an 8-foot wingspan. He blocked a league-high 2.6 shots per game this season and altered even more with his always looming presence. Gobert contested a league-high 10.2 shots per game at the rim this season and allowed only a 43.9 percent conversion rate, per NBA.com/Stats, the stingiest among players who faced at least six attempts per game.
The Warriors will try to counter by forcing him out on the perimeter and into space. That’s what they do against lumbering big men. Gobert is more agile than you might expect — that’s why he’s a legit DPOY candidate; his weaknesses are minor. But he is still recovering from a scary knee sprain and a minor ankle tweak in Round 1. His lateral movement may be hindered.
Green’s defensive exploits are well-documented. He can guard every position on every inch of the court, while also providing surprising rim protection despite being six inches shorter than Gobert. Green had 17 blocks in four games against the overmatched Blazers.
But the Jazz provide more muscle for Green to worry about. Boris Diaw is a load, Gobert is an All-NBA behemoth and Derrick Favors is a capable body coming off the bench. All three are better than anything the Portland frontline was tossing out there. Among his other duties, Green is about to face more pressure in protecting the glass. When the Warriors struggles, it’s usually because they don’t rebound. Utah was the third best rebounding team in the league this season, grabbing 51.8 percent of misses.
Key matchup: George Hill vs Stephen Curry
The Warriors have a huge edge in the backcourt in this series, but it may not be as massive as you think. George Hill has a pretty nondescript name and game, but, at age 30, he has steadily become a more impactful presence. This season — his first with a Jazz team that seems to fit his style — Hill averaged a career-best 16.9 points and shot above 40 percent from 3 for a second straight year.
Injuries forced him to miss both Warrior matchups in December. So Hill only played 19 minutes against Golden State this season, all in that mid-April win. In them, Hill made seven of his nine shots and five of his seven 3s, scoring 20 points. In a six-point win, Hill was a plus-10 in his 19 minutes.
Hill is not nearly as explosive a scorer as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but he’s capable if you don’t shut down his driving lanes and efficient if you’re forgetful of his quick catch-and-shoot ability on the perimeter. Steph Curry’s defensive focus may be just as important as his offense in this series.
The increased need for Durant
After a knee injury knocked him out 19 games to end the season and a calf twinge stripped him of two playoff games, Kevin Durant is healthy and increasingly needed by this loaded Warriors team, who have proven their potency with and without him.
The Blazers were weak at the small forward position. The Jazz aren’t. Gordon Hayward is a current All-Star and Joe Johnson is a former seven-time All-Star. Both played brilliantly against the Clippers. They’ll be Durant’s primary assignments this series and could be only a taste of what’s to come this postseason. If the Warriors follow up a Jazz matchup with the Spurs and Cavaliers the next two rounds — the most likely scenario to many — Durant will follow Hayward with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James.
Warriors in 5