The Utah Jazz remind me much of the Warriors 3-4 years ago: a club trying to make the transition from a rebuilding team back to a championship team. Utah has a fantastic history of success, with numerous playoff runs in the not-so-distant past. Their problem was very similar to the Warriors' in the way that they had a fantastic roster that eventually got too old, with the replacements never living up to expectations. They entered tonight with a lot of potential, with pieces in the right places after good drafting and trading that set them up for a longer rebuild rather than a quick fix.
The 5-7 record for the Jazz didn't seem to fit the play of its young superstars and potential, with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke giving teams problems. Count in large contracts recently for Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, a fantastic rookie in Dante Exum, and a collection of moving parts and role players, and Utah has a solid-if-not-great roster that can challenge any team nightly. The argument could be made that if the Jazz were in the East they would be a playoff team.
So how would they stand up tonight against the Warriors, arguably the best team in the NBA right now coming off of four days' rest? Would it be rest or rust for Golden State coming off easy wins last weekend against Charlotte and the Lakers? Could the Warriors keep up the home momentum and fend off this young team by putting them in their place?
The Warriors set the tone early -- they had a hand in every shot on defense, and they fought through poor shooting (48% in the first half but very poor from behind the arc) by pushing the break off rebounds and turnovers to get easy baskets. They were not going to let this young team get any confidence from the start, and it showed with a quick lead and a great cushion from the starting five; the Jazz didn't even score a point until more than four minutes into the game. The bench came out to extend, going 8-of-14 between the end of the first to the second to deflate Utah into bad shooting and forced offense. They held Utah to 34% shooting before halftime, also forcing sloppy play (12 turnovers).
The second half was a slow defensive grind, continuing to make the Jazz work for every basket while the Warriors ran a clinic on getting to the hoop at will. It was a refreshing sight to see Andre Iguodala carry some of the offense, specifically in the third quarter but also throughout the game (team-leading 17 points on the night, 7-of-8 shooting). He helped extend the lead to 30, working with the second unit using length, savvy and composure to finish off Utah. The starters didn't see the floor in the fourth for the third game in a row, and fans were treated to the bottom of the bench to close out this game. We can't put the fourth quarter on the highlight reel as the Jazz backups outplayed the Warriors heavily to cut the final deficit, but we were all still treated to a defining 101-88 victory.
A few observations:
Draymond Green is proving himself to be a starter in this league
... and more importantly has taken the starting spot from David Lee, even after David comes back from his hamstring injury. How can you bench Draymond at this point with his effect on the game on both sides of the court? He energizes the defense with his length, leads the break with ball handling and consistent pressure, and his shooting is no longer a surprise. Watch his early possessions on Kanter tonight -- vocal, motivated and celebrating every stop to get the momentum. His ability to defend all five positions allows them to switch everything on defense, which completely kills opponents' pick and rolls.
Stephen Curry makes this game look pretty
Steph's shot was not completely on to start the game. What does he do? Dribble penetration to help start the offense. Beautiful passes, including lobs to Klay on the break and a beautiful give-and-go sequence with Bogut that killed the will of the Jazz in the second quarter (see video below). Curry looked tired at the crazy pace at which Golden State wanted to push the ball to start the game, but you can see the maturity of Curry to know how else he can help when his shot is not falling. He has studied the Chris Paul tapes to see how moving to open spaces creates for his teammates and it shows with an evolving command of the ball and tempo. A bad shooting night (eight points) still turned into 10 assists.
The Jazz got beaten mentally as much as physically
It wasn't that the Jazz were beat as much as they were reduced to a frustrated scrambling team who couldn't keep up with the Warriors' pressure. The bigs tried their best to keep up with the Green-Bogut combo down low, but Kanter couldn't deal with Draymond's speed and Favors was pushed around in the paint and forced to become an ineffective outside shooter (only 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting). The body language told you all that you needed to know -- the Jazz ran out of fight and watched the highlight reel passes and layup-line efficient scoring put them in a hole they couldn't get out of.
Let's not be fooled by the final score. I'd rather have a smaller margin of victory in sacrifice of letting my starters watch from the bench to end games. This game wasn't close, and it was a clinic on how you handle young teams. You make "trap" games into laughers, and you put away teams you are supposed to beat. The Warriors swept the Jazz last year, and though Utah plays better at home, I think they realize Golden State is a tough matchup for them on any floor. The contributions are starting to balance out as it's not just a two-man show anymore -- watching Bogut go coast-to-coast on a layup, and continuing to see Harrison Barnes shoot the ball well, are fantastic surprises. Another night, another blowout win, and the momentum continues into a tough road trip coming up. Are the Warriors the best team in the NBA? It's sure starting to look like it.