The Golden State Warriors host the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals. How do two of the league’s deepest teams match up?
The Golden State Warriors rolled into the 2017 NBA Playoffs and took care of business as expected, dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers in four games. When facing the Utah Jazz, the biggest concern for the Warriors will be the health of their coach, but there are other storylines at play for the defending Western Conference champs as well.
One year after winning 73 games in the regular season yet falling one win short of the title, the Warriors could make a run at 16-0 in the postseason. Regardless of whether they reach that goal, this team needs a title to validate Kevin Durant‘s decision to come aboard. To do so they will need to claim victory over a Utah team that in many ways is built as the polar opposite of the Portland team they just overcame.
For the Jazz, they are seeking validation of their own — not for any one offseason move but for the trajectory of an entire core. This team is deep and versatile, but they have also hobbled through the season after falling short of expectations the past two years. While the Jazz may have dealt a death blow to the Los Angeles Clippers as we know them, they are out to prove more.
There is more on the line for both teams than glory and validation; they each have crucial decisions awaiting this summer. Can the Warriors hand huge contracts to Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and still retain their solid role players? Will Gordon Hayward and George Hill stay in Utah or seek out contenders elsewhere? Has Joe Ingles priced himself out of Utah’s range?
With all of that and more on the line, the Jazz head to Oakland for a momentous Game 1 on Tuesday night. The Warriors take the court after more than a week of rest, while the Jazz are pivoting from the joy of a Game 7 victory on Sunday. Comparing these two teams, which one has the upper hand?
Likely Starting Lineups
Stephen Curry (GSW) vs. George Hill (UTA)
George Hill has had a career year since joining the Utah Jazz last June, scoring a career-high 16.9 point per game. Although he battled a variety of injuries throughout the season, he played in all seven games of their first round series and was a steadying hand for a Jazz team that has struggled at the point guard position since trading Deron Williams.
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Stephen Curry is one of the NBA’s brightest stars and the two-time defending MVP. While this season he did not reach the same lofty statistical heights of last year, advanced metrics tell us his impact is as high as ever. In the two months Kevin Durant missed with injury, Curry unleashed his inner superstar and not only kept the Warriors afloat, but saw them improve.
Both Hill and Curry are comfortable playing on or off the ball, which gives their respective coaches the flexibility to leverage other creators on the offense. While Hill is a strong three-point shooter, Curry certainly bests him in that area. No slight to Hill, but Curry is more lethal with the ball in his hands, scoring anywhere on the court and passing with underappreciated skill.
On defense Hill takes back some of that advantage, as he is one of the league’s better on-ball point guard defenders. He leverages his length to envelop smaller guards, and he made Chris Paul fight for every point he scored in their first round series. But Curry is also a strong team defender, with quick hands and a razor sharp intellect that lead him to a number of steals and deflections.
Advantage: Golden State
Klay Thompson (GSW) vs. Joe Ingles (UTA)
Although Rodney Hood started for the Jazz much of the season, the rise of Joe Ingles could not be denied. The Australian wing has turned into an excellent defender, knockdown shooter and even boasts the playmaking skills to run pick-and-rolls.
Klay Thompson is an even better shooter, perhaps the second-best in NBA history (and yet still second-best on his own team). When Thompson gets hot, no team in the league can even slow him down, as evidenced by his 60 points in 30 minutes against the Indiana Pacers earlier this season — a game in which he touched the ball for just 90 seconds.
Thompson will often guard the opposing team’s best backcourt player, which would seem to be George Hill. But the playmaking ability of Ingles means that if the Warriors guard him with Curry, he can run a pick-and-roll to get Curry switched on a larger player able to take him into the post, such as Gordon Hayward or Joe Johnson. While Thompson has elite skill Ingles cannot touch, the gap is much closer than anyone would have thought.
Advantage: Golden State
Kevin Durant (GSW) vs. Gordon Hayward (UTA)
This is one of the best matchups of the postseason thus far. Kevin Durant should be close to full health after missing two games in the first round due to a leg injury. When he is, he is perhaps the league’s best two-way player – a lethal shooter from outside and a lengthy rim protector inside. He can score form anywhere and over anyone, making him one of the toughest players in the league to guard.
Gordon Hayward cannot be simply overlooked because he is matching up with a future Hall of Fame player. He has grown tremendously on defense as well, both as a team defender and on the ball. On offense he has grown as well, scoring from all three levels and adding layers to his game every year. He is a true star in the league now.
Unfortunately for Hayward the Warriors have a few stars as well, and when healthy Kevin Durant was a bonafide MVP candidate. His ability to score efficiently at any volume lifts the floor of an offense, and in an environment surrounded by other two-way stars he is set up to shine. Hayward deserves accolades for his season and the way he dispatched the Clippers, but reality will set in once Game 1 begins.
Advantage: Golden State
In order to keep Joe Johnson in his bench role the Jazz have been starting Boris Diaw at the 4 throughout the playoffs thus far. The veteran possesses every bit of craft he made famous in San Antonio, taking his time whenever he has the ball to read the defense and make the right play. He is also 35 years old and was never fast or a top-flight athlete.
Draymond Green is both of those things and more, a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He has preternatural defensive instincts, snuffing out drives before they happen and slapping away shots, passes, or loose dribbles. On offense he is one of the league’s best passing big men, is dynamic in transition with the ball in his hands, and has gladly inherited Andrew Bogut‘s vacated role in setting bone-jarring screens. All respect to the refined craft of Diaw, but this one is not close.
Advantage: Golden State
Zaza Pachulia (GSW) vs. Rudy Gobert (UTA)
Zaza Pachulia has provided the Warriors with excellent value on the bargain contract he signed for. While rarely part of Golden State’s many highlight plays, he is a solid center who sets screens, rebounds and can hold his own on defense. The Warriors needed a dependable starting center to eat up minutes for the season and he filled his role perfectly.
Rudy Gobert did more than fill a role: he defined one. On defense no player is better at protecting the rim, and Gobert combined the length and athleticism to turn away any shot at the rim with the instincts and positioning to defend both players in a pick-and-roll, taking away an open midrange shot but filling the passing lane simultaneously.
On offense Gobert does not get enough credit, as he is ferocious rolling to the rim. He takes high percentage shots, doesn’t shy from contact, and has to be guarded inside or he is going to catch a pass and flush it home. It also has to be mentioned that the Utah center has one of the best collection of nicknames in the league, from the “Stifle Tower” to the “French Rejection” to the “Gobert Report.”
Andre Iguodala (GSW) vs. Joe Johnson (UTA)
Both teams employ a former All-Star shooting guard who has moved down the lineup as he aged. Andre Iguodala continues to be one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, using savvy and film study to anticipate an opponent’s moves. While not the athlete he once was, Iguodala can still get up for dunks when he cuts to the basket, and his passing skills allow him to complement whichever Golden State stars he plays alongside.
Joe Johnson closes games for the Jazz at the 4, and his role is to go out and get buckets. He can score from literally every angle in the paint, with a variety of flips and floaters that are nearly unguardable, as the Clippers found out the hard way. While both are valuable offensive pieces off the bench, Johnson cannot approach Iguodala as a defender.
Advantage: Golden State
The Golden State Warriors beat the Trail Blazers without players available, including Curry’s reliable backup Shaun Livingston. Despite the money invested in their top five players, this team has amassed a versatile and surprisingly deep roster. Rookie Patrick McCaw was a steal in the second round of the draft, veterans such as David West and Matt Barnes joined to chase a ring, and JaVale McGee has somehow turned into one of the league’s most fun players in the midst of a career season.
The Jazz are one of the few teams that can match the Warriors in terms of depth, going two- and three-deep at every position. Derrick Favors would start for nearly any team in the league, and often does for Utah; he finally looks healthy after a season plagued by injuries. Rodney Hood lost his starting job to Joe Ingles but is still a dynamic scorer. Utah has a trio of backup point guards it can deploy depending on the matchup.
Without factoring in each team’s respective sixth men, the Jazz have more high-end options available off of the bench. Favors and Hood are each just as good if not better than anyone Golden State could put in.
Mike Brown (GSW) vs. Quin Snyder (UTA)
If Steve Kerr were healthy and able to coach, this would be an easy decision in his favor. The former player, general manager and broadcaster has succeeded at every level and turned this team from good to elite. While his scheme and organizational culture continue on in his absence, Mike Brown will be the man on the sidelines making real-time decisions. Get well soon, Steve Kerr!
Quin Snyder is something of a young dynamo in the NBA right now, taking a Utah team struggling to put its pieces together a few seasons ago and building something sustainable. A strong two-way team with a versatile roster and a scheme that maximizes its player’s strengths is not easy to build, but Snyder has done just that. Brown is a solid coach with years of experience, but Snyder may already be a top-five coach in the league.
Golden State’s Death Lineup vs. Utah’s Best Five
The Warriors discovered the modern marvel of small-ball lineups during their title run in 2015 — not the idea of removing a traditional power forward for a wing player, but the realization that a 6’6″ player could hold up at center. The result was the creation of the “Death Lineup,” where five uniquely gifted players fit together to terrorize the league.
The replacement of Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant this past offseason raised the ceiling of that lineup even higher. During the season the Warriors deployed the lineup sparingly, saving Draymond Green’s legs for the playoffs. Is the second round the right time to bring it out in force?
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Utah will have to counter with their best possible five-man lineup. Rudy Gobert is a force that the Warriors will struggle to guard no matter who is on the court, but especially when Green is at center. Joe Johnson closed games at the 4 against the Clippers, but with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala present to guard Johnson and Gordon Hayward, it may make more sense to swap out Johnson for Rodney Hood to get more spacing and defense on the court.
There is also the possibility the Jazz double down the other way, putting in Derrick Favors at the 4 and playing extra-large. The Memphis Grizzlies went up 2-1 on that 2015 Warriors team by going large, and it was the defensive strength of Harrison Barnes that sparked the Warriors in that series. How does Durant fare against the bulk of that front line? And can the Jazz slow down this fast-paced offense, or will they fall apart trying to keep up?
The Warriors Will Win If…
Their core guys stay healthy throughout the series and they do not go absolutely cold from beyond the arc. Otherwise they have the sheer talent to advance no matter what Utah does. The more difficult task will be pulling off the sweep; to do that they will need a fully healthy Durant and a few dagger games from their shooters.
The Jazz Will Win If…
The Warriors come out rusty after a long layover and the Jazz can steal Game 1, paired with more late-game Joe Johnson brilliance and a series-long performance from Gordon Hayward that raises him into the next echelon of stars. A healthy Rudy Gobert is the X-Factor here and could be the key to solving the Golden State puzzle for every team that doesn’t have a LeBron James.
Golden State Warriors in 5. Utah can put things together on a cold-shooting night for the Warriors at some point to steal a win, but otherwise the Warriors have the star power to simply overwhelm the Jazz.