The Golden State Warriors are known for game-changing runs that turn relatively close contests into full-on blowouts. In Thursday night’s Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Utah Jazz, that stretch came in the opening quarter, which gave the underdogs plenty of time to mount a comeback. Unfortunately for the Jazz, an elite team can put the game away with no regard for the time left on the clock or the opponent’s ability to make it close. Domination can be a state of mind, and in that respect the Warriors were never really challenged in the 115-104 win at Oracle Arena.
That’s not because Utah gave up. In fact, the Jazz performed ably on Tuesday Night given the absence of injured point guard George Hill and their 49-29 deficit with five minutes remaining in the first half. Plenty of teams would have given up under the same circumstances.
Yet their runs didn’t test the Warriors as much as they momentarily made the score closer. Golden State had an answer for every spurt from Utah, creating its own mini-runs to get the lead back over double-digits. The Jazz can take plenty of positives from their ability to avoid a true blowout in Game 2, but the extent of the Warriors’ control should temper any enthusiasm. Only one team in this series hasn’t seen a deficit since April 22, and that group has shown no signs of relinquishing its advantage.
It's now 3 straight games where the Warriors have never trailed.
— Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (@ROSGO21) May 5, 2017
Golden State reasserted its dominance early and led by as many as 20 points in the first quarter. The bulk of the period could be interpreted as a run, but a 14-2 burst from roughly the 5:05 to 1:05 marks set the terms of the night and gave the Warriors an early cushion. As with many of the Warriors’ best stretches, it started with defense. The introductions of Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee at the 5:50 mark amped up their defense pressure, and the Jazz had few answers with the more erratic Shelvin Mack taking George Hill’s place as starting point guard.
It also helped that Draymond Green added hot outside shooting to his typical elite defense. Green made his first four three-point attempts to score 12 of his eventual 21 points in the first quarter, contributing excellent scoring numbers to an offense that’s already close to unguardable. He’s an essential player for the Warriors on any night, but on Thursday his first-quarter play gave his team a huge early advantage.
The Jazz struggled again to open the second quarter and trailed by 20 with five minutes remaining, which seemed to suggest the night’s second blowout was well under way. Yet a combination of improved shooting from the Jazz and careless turnovers from the Warriors led to a 10-0 Utah run that created a much more manageable deficit. Golden State’s penchant for offensive sloppiness often allows teams back in to games, and their nine first-half miscues certainly helped Utah maintain hope heading into the break.
However, the Warriors refocused shortly after the Jazz’s run and managed to get the lead back up to as many as 18 before entering halftime up 60-47. A similar dynamic would play out over the remainder of the game. The Jazz performed well in the second half and trailed by as few as six points after just 2:05 of play in the third quarter. Yet seemingly every gain they made was followed by a readjustment from the Warriors, even if it only involved one or two baskets to get the lead into double digits by a small margin. It was as if Utah’s runs momentarily jostled Golden State from its slumber, only for them to fall back asleep a few possessions later.
It’s up to the Jazz to decide how much that succession of miniature comebacks means. To be sure, Utah saw many players show up on Thursday and proved that it can compete with Golden State despite not playing with its second-leading scorer and floor general. Center Rudy Gobert took over for stretches and finished with 16 points and 16 boards, a nice platform to build from as the series shifts to Salt Lake City. Similarly, Gordon Hayward bounced back from a poor Game 1 to put up a game-high 33 points on 11-of-21 shooting. The Jazz will need these performances to get back into the series, and it’s a good sign that their stars were able to show up on the road.
But how much could all that affect the outcome when the Warriors were never more than a few possessions from reasserting control? For everything the Jazz did right, they still didn’t manage to play the game at their preferred grind-it-out pace and struggled to guard Golden State’s stars. Kevin Durant had his best game of the postseason so far, putting up 25 points on 13-of-15 shooting from the line, 11 rebounds, and seven assists (six in the first half). He played his role to a tee, creating shots where none existed and getting free throws to bail out the offense when shots weren’t going down. And even when the Jazz did everything right, there’s no answer for shots like this bizarre banked-in corner three from Stephen Curry:
The Jazz have done a lot right in the first two games of this series, but the Warriors have only proven that it takes a virtually perfect night to beat them. They simply have too many options and play too intelligently for most teams to handle. It takes bad luck and a transcendent performance to beat them. A fourth quarter knee injury to Green appeared to bring the former, but he returned after a brief trip to the locker room and doesn’t seem in doubt for Game 3.
Utah should return Hill on Saturday and certainly has the potential to win that game in front of a home crowd. But there is increasingly little reason to doubt that the Warriors can make this a short series. When they’re locked in, they’re close to unbeatable.
– – – – – – –