The Warriors cruised through their first-round series with a sweep of the Blazers, with Stephen Curry’s 29.8 points per game leading the way. Not all is completely well in Golden State, though. Kevin Durant, after returning from a knee injury, hurt his calf and sat out Games 2 and 3, only playing 20 minutes in Game 4. A bigger concern is coach Steve Kerr, still dealing with an illness related to the back surgery he had nearly two years ago. Mike Brown has taken the reins, and it is unclear when Kerr will be back in the postseason.
The Jazz were also hampered by first-round injuries, with star center Rudy Gobert going down in the opening seconds of Game 1, only to return for Game 4 — when Gordon Hayward had to leave early because of food poisoning. Even healthy, Utah needed seven games to get past the Clippers, aided in part by a toe injury suffered by Blake Griffin.
Their reward is the top-seeded Warriors, a team that has beaten the Jazz in seven of their last eight meetings. The series will feature the two players most likely to win Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert and Warriors forward Draymond Green. Those guys anchor defensive units that ranked second (Golden State) and third (Utah) in defensive efficiency this season.
The key player
Gordon Hayward does not much like playing against the Warriors. In 24 career games, he has averaged 12.6 points on 38.6 percent shooting, which represents his third-worst scoring output against any team and his fourth-worst shooting percentage. Hayward played one game against the Warriors this year, and it did not go well: six points on 2-for-10 shooting. In fact, in his last four games against Golden State, Hayward is a cumulative minus-69 when on the floor, and has shot 16-for-60 from the field (26.7 percent).
Hayward has also come a long way since his last playoff appearance, in his second season back in 2012. Utah was swept by the Spurs in that series, and Hayward was held to 7.3 points in 30.6 minutes, and was brutal with his shooting, making just 18.3 percent of his attempts. Against the Clippers, Hayward was the Jazz’s offensive anchor. Now, against Golden State, he will find a variety of tough, long-limbed defenders like Durant, Green and Andre Iguodala. He must find a way to keep his offense up against one of the league’s best defenses.
The big number
93.6. During the regular season, according to NBA.com stats, the Jazz averaged just 93.6 possessions per 48 minutes, the fewest in the league by far. They’re a defense-first team, and they can win by slowing down opponents and stifling them in the halfcourt game — they allowed the second-fewest points in transition in the regular season, and scored the second-fewest.
That’s in stark comparison with the Warriors, who are easily the best fast-break team in the league, averaging 24.7 transition points per game, a full 2.5 points better than No. 2 on the list. The Warriors love pace and were the fourth-fastest team in the league this year, averaging 102.2 possessions per 48 minutes in their games. This marks a distinct clash of styles that will decide whether the Jazz have any chance of knocking off Golden State. The Jazz have no shot if they can’t slow the games down to their pace and get the Warriors to play their style.
The Warriors are dealing with a lot in terms of Kerr and getting Durant back into the lineup, and it’s possible that the Jazz will be able to muck up a game or two and make it close enough to get a couple of wins. But the Warriors have an uncanny ability to force teams to play at their pace, and even if things get ugly, the addition of Durant gives Golden State an escape valve in half-court games that they didn’t have (and ultimately needed, very badly) last season. Warriors in 5.