In the NBA the second-toughest place to place geographically on the second-night-of-a-back-to-back is Utah. The Golden State Warriors found themselves in Salt Lake City a little past four in the morning, less than six hours after fending off a feisty Washington Wizards team at Oracle Arena. The Warriors, as of late looking increasingly physically drained and emotionally apathetic, had quite a few things working against them before the game even started. On the court, they faced a young, spry, rested, and motivated Utah Jazz team fighting for its playoff life.
At the onset of the game, the Warriors surprised by coming out with mental acuity and general activity on both sides of the ball. Utah shot just 36% in the first quarter, which dipped down to 35% by halftime thanks to a 1 - 10 start from the field in the second quarter. The Warriors were communicating effectively on defense, and when Andrew Bogut wasn't being pulled away from the rim to cover mistakes from his teammates he found time to wall off the paint against a goliath Jazz frontline of Rudy Gobert and bruiser Derrick Favors. Enervation was evident in several players' feet dragging, but effort and defensive mental focus was finally in attendance for a Warriors team whose 5th-ranked defensive efficiency has left coaches and players disgruntled all year.
When asked if the looming NBA Playoffs has forced the Warriors to finally dig their heels in and sharpen their defensive efficacy, guard Leandro Barbosa said, "definitely". Barbosa, for his part, had a quick seven points on three-of-four shooting from the field at the half.
Unfortunately, a common theme from the year did make an appearance, cast this night as a leading actor in "Sloppy Turnovers: A Broadway Production". The Warriors committed ten turnovers directly leading to ten uncontested Jazz points, which kept Utah in the game on a night in which the Warriors' set defense thoroughly stifled the opposition. The Warriors' heavy legs also left their long-range shooting wanting, as they made just five of 14 attempts from three at the half. Second chance points off of offensive rebounds also kept the Jazz afloat, as the Warriors couldn't muster enough energy for a complete effort.
The defensive effort, along with mental sharpness, was cast by the wayside at halftime. The Warriors were pathetically drained at times, egregiously inept at others. Attrition, fatigue, and last night all caught up with the Warriors in the third quarter. It took them nearly four minutes to put any points on the board, as part of a 16-points-in-15-minutes stretch of offensive listlessness. Jazz coach Quinn Snyder utilized his timeouts judiciously, as he surgically halted the game anytime the Warriors seemed to get a mental foothold on the flow of the action.
The Warriors caught minor second wind in the middle of the third, but ultimately the horrible mental mistakes and even worse shooting caught up to the Warriors. Draymond Green full body-fouled a 33-foot-shooting Rodney Hood with less than a second left on the clock. Marreese Speights refused to contest a coast-to-coast Trey Lyles with seconds on the clock, as well. And Speights does deserve a special shoutout for his terrible play on both ends this game. Everything about the Warriors' execution screams mental fatigue, cries that coach Steve Kerr refuses to abide.
An aside: as democratic and open-door-policy-touting as coach Steve Kerr is, he should be the final arbiter on player resting. He risks nothing by assuming the rule of final authoritarian in terms of scheduled rest; the team chemistry and dynamics have existed well before the possibility of 73 wins has, and would survive without it just the same.
This Jazz game was a microcosm of how player fatigue can influence the game moreso than team-wide skill. While the San Antonio Spurs' elder core requires more rest, the Warriors opting to galavant through the season without resting at all is foolhardy and shortsighted. Beating the Utah Jazz was never the final objective. Winning the NBA title in 2016 was always the objective, and it becomes decreasingly likely game the Spurs rest while the Warriors slog through the mire with a medieval attitudes regarding player resting.
None of this precludes the possibility of finding an equilibrium of reaching 73 wins and resting players. But isn't resting key contributors on the second-night-of-a-back-to-back in oxygen-devoid Utah the most obvious place to start? The Warriors are down key contributors in Andre Iguodala and Festus Ezeli, granted, but giving Ian Clark extra minutes while resting a clearly bleary-eyed Stephen Curry risks little in the way of injuries to Clark, who will be left off of the playoff rotation anyway, while gaining quite a bit in not wearing down the treads on Curry too fast.
Anyways, in the fourth quarter, 22 Million Dollar Man Harrison Barnes continued to defend stoutly, rebound at an unseen rate (for Barnes) and unfortunately fail to hit threes, at one of eight on extremely open attempts. Kerr went to a well he's dipped into far too much in the season, as he put Green and Barnes in at the frontcourt positions, who promptly got abused by Rudy Gobert on the glass. There's a certain brute un-cleverness from Kerr with his lineups (not that there necessarily needs to be cleverness given the dominance of the SBDS).
The fourth quarter was largely the internalized struggle between skill and tiredness brought to life. The Warriors made surges, but ultimately it had the same effect of a caged beast roaring in anger: terrifying, but in context ultimately harmless. Stephen Curry clanked a free throw, genuinely breaking Jim Barnett's heart mid-sentence. Then he turned it over in a live-ball situation with a loosey-goosey dribble move between two defenders. Then the Warriors failed to secure a rebound.
Turnovers and failure to rebound: two vices the Warriors dabble with quite frequently that bit them tonight. Except it didn't quite kill them.
Through some clutch defense on Jazz free throw shooters (that ghost defender really altered their shots all night as the Jazz shot under 50% from the line), the Warriors slugged into overtime because, really, what more do the Warriors want to see but five more minutes on the second-night-of-a-back-to-back at altitude?
In overtime, the Warriors out-executed the opposition as they always seem to do regardless of fatigue. The defense continued its rejuvenated efforts while the offense peaked back out from hiding. Overtime is almost always a chaotic mess on both ends and, as Bill Simmons among many other have noticed, the Warriors are perfect operators (and engineers) of chaos on the court.
It was a tired-legs, grit-and-grind, bleary-eyed game and win. It was a game that was immensely satisfying as a sports fan looking for instant gratification -- but an ugly performance which re-ignites the indignant pragmatist in me that is looking towards the meat grinder of the Western Conference Playoffs, wholly concerned at this point at what lengths the players and coaches are willing to go for that cursed number 73.