Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
How they got here: Golden State easily swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round while Utah outlasted the Los Angeles Clippers in a very gruelling, extremely entertaining seven game series.
How the Jazz can win: For Utah to win, Rudy Gobert needs to dominate the Warriors frontcourt. Gobert is a defensive juggernaut. He led the NBA in blocks per game throughout the season with 2.6 and also in defensive win shares. His defensive box plus/minus was an impressive 4.5 and he averaged 12.8 rebounds per game. He also greatly improved his offensive play and averaged a career high 14 points a game on an NBA best true shooting percentage of .683.
But Gobert is likely not 100%. He injured his knee in the first game of the series against the Clippers and did not return until game four. He played well but looked pained throughout and was a non-factor in the deciding game after fouling out after only 13 minutes of action.
The Jazz are going to need Gobert in top form, but even if he is, he will still be in tough against the Warriors. While he can dominate the glass, Golden State actually exceeded everyone’s expectations in terms of rim protection, going on to lead the NBA in blocks per game by a wide margin, but they’re also a team that likes to go small frequently which should allow Gobert to dominate down low as he did throughout the season, averaging 17 boards against Golden State.
The Jazz could use their size to punish the Warriors in small line-ups which could allow them to achieve the most important goal for them this series: controlling the pace. The slower and more methodical that the Jazz are able to make the series, the more they will hang in there with Golden State. The Jazz play by far the slowest pace in the NBA while Golden State is the fourth fastest. Grinding them down and preventing them from breaking out in transition will be key to a Utah victory.
Utah has been able to limit Golden State’s scoring over the past two season as they’ve broken 110 points only once against Utah. If the Jazz can get their offense firing on all cylinders, this will be a more even series than many expect. If the Jazz can control the tempo and Gordon Hayward continues his break out performance from round one (23.7 points on 46.9% shooting including 44.7% from three point range), Utah is going to be there. ISO JOE Johnson had an absolute renaissance against the Clippers and the Jazz are going to need that to continue against Golden State along with some key contributions from Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and George Hill who also were key contributors in the victory over Lob City.
If the Jazz can control the pace and if Gobert can establish himself in the paint then they get to worry about how to stop Kevin Durant. Likely it will be some combination of Ingles and Hayward which worked against the Clippers wing scorers, but the issues then becomes one of how to balance guard Durant with also limiting the Splash Brothers and there is no easy solution to that quandary.
How the Warriors can win: Here’s the thing: Utah can do everything absolutely perfectly and still lose this series. That’s just the offensive fire power that Golden State has in its arsenal.
Kevin Durant is extremely long on the wing and will be difficult to defend. Double him and Klay Thompson gets hot. If George Hill can’t slow down Curry, suddenly he heats up and nails a few triples in a row and you’re down by double digits. The Warriors can deploy Iguadala off the bench and he can disrupt the Jazz defense with only his play off the ball.
The Warriors just have too many weapons and shutting them all down will be a near impossible task for Utah or any other team this season.
Also working in Golden State’s favour is the emergence of JaVale McGee from league wide punchline to valued rotational player. McGee terrorized a Nurkic-less Blazers front court in round one and while he’s unlikely to have the same success against Rudy Gobert, if he can disrupt the big Frenchman at all, it will work in the Warriors’ favour.
Draymond Green is also going to be a nightmare for Utah. He is the likely defensive player of the year and has been a force all playoffs with 9.5 boards, 4.3 blocks and 1.75 steals per game, but he’s also been getting it done as a playmaker for Golden State, averaging 7.5 assists. Green is going to shut down whoever he is matched up with. He will be a nightmare to play and absolutely exhaust them on the other end. He can thrive even in the Jazz’s slow pace and really is the heart of this Warriors squad.
The fact is that there is absolutely no margin for error against Golden State and the Jazz are a team on the rise but far from perfect. Mistakes will be made and the Warriors will make them pay for them by pushing the tempo and going on scoring runs.
Why you should watch: Utah has the ability to punish the Warriors in unique ways. It’s entirely possible that this series could resemble Golden State’s tougher match-up against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2015 which saw the Warriors go down 2-1 before coming back. It promises to be a lot tighter and more competitive than a series with the Clippers would have been. There will also be the question of whether or not Mike Brown will be able to make the type of adjustments that Steve Kerr is able to if the Jazz are able to slow the Warriors down.
Who will win: I really enjoy this Utah team and the personality they have shown throughout the season and in their first round victory over the Clippers. I want Gobert to dominate, I want Hayward to continue to break out and I want more ISO JOE moments. Even with those, there is no answer to all of Golden State’s weapons. This is a team with Kevin Durant AND Steph Curry. Not to mention Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and so many different line-up combinations off the bench.
I think Utah will give the Warriors some problems, but ultimately the Warriors will have answers. I’m not confident that Utah can solve the issue of balancing defending Durant with containing Thompson or Curry either and ultimately that will cost them.
Prediction: Golden State in five.