The NBA Western Conference Playoffs shift into high gear as two of the more entertaining teams in the league this season are locked and loaded for an intriguing battle. The Warriors enter the second round well rested after taking more than a week off thanks to their four-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. Their opponents, the Jazz, enter the series on the opposite end of the spectrum, needing all seven games to upset the Los Angeles Clippers, winning Game 7 on Sunday on the road.
What Utah does have going for it is that it’s the only team to beat Golden State in the past 20 games, a win on April 10 that should instantly signal the Jazz will be no pushover in the series. Head coach Quin Snyder loves to slow the game down and make teams grid things out, presenting an interesting contrast in styles compared to the up-tempo Warriors. While that strategy worked in the end during the first round, needless to say there will be a huge bump in the competition matching up against Golden State’s All-Star cast.
That starts at the top with two-time reigning MVP Steph Curry, who has had to take a different role this season with the arrival of Kevin Durant to the Bay Area. While the style of play is tweaked ever so slightly, the point guard remains one of the most exciting players in the league to watch and will need to be at his best to drop buckets on one of the stingier defenses in the West.
While the first round of the playoffs is always a welcome treat, few things compare to the step up in play that the second round brings. Even if this series ends up favoring one side as the season series did, it still offers the chance to watch some must-see basketball between two of the best teams in the league.
No. 5 Utah Jazz (51-31) vs. No. 1 Golden State Warriors (67-15)
Game 1 - Tuesday, May 2, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 - Thursday, May 4, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 3 - Saturday, May 6, 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 4 - Monday, May 8, time TBD (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) - TBD
Game 6 (if necessary) - TBD
Game 7 (if necessary) - TBD
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., while Games 3, 4, 6 will take place at Vivint SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City.
Keys for Utah
This is a solid group of veterans that won’t be fazed too much when the Warriors go on one of their typical lightning quick runs during a game, but remaining level-headed throughout the series is a must. The Jazz are going to want to make each contest ugly by slowing down the pace to a crawl and limiting processions in transition by their opponents. Joe Johnson and Gordon Hayward are capable of making big shots in big moments and keeping things close, where the team hopes it has a chance late in the game to steal a few wins. At times against the Clippers, Utah didn’t mind going up and down the court because the offense was getting easy looks but that won’t be the case in this series because of the Warriors’ quality defense and overall length. Stick to the game plan and the Jazz might just make things very interesting in this one.
Keys for Golden State
Health is first and foremost on the minds of the Warriors, as it has been since the calendar turned to 2017. Obviously Kevin Durant is the headliner of the group of walking wounded and it remains to be seen if he can make a big jump in terms of minutes played in this series while dealing with that calf strain. Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes also could return to the bench for this round and that would provide a nice boost as the team looks ahead beyond just the Jazz. Finally, there’s the boss himself in Steve Kerr, who may not be around much as he deals with complications regarding his back. Golden State is good enough to move on with the likes of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson draining three-pointers but the difference between a waltz to the conference finals and a struggle will be determined by the overall team health.
Throughout the season, the play of the Jazz has been one of the welcome developments in the Western Conference, which has been dominated by the Warriors and Spurs as of late but have seen the door squeak open a tad thanks to a host of intriguing contenders. While Utah has been labeled a dark horse by some this postseason, a series win over the Clippers in which it overcame a number of issues has proven that this team is firmly in the mix to make some noise in the second round.
Unfortunately the Jazz draw Golden State, who has been dealing with its own issues left and right but remain the best team in basketball by a good margin. Health has kept the Warriors from being the juggernaut everybody expected when the team was first being assembled, but make no mistake, they’re the prohibitive favorite in this series and this postseason for a reason. While many want to concentrate on the high-flying ways of their MVPs or the deadly shooting from the outside, this is a complete team that competes on both ends of the court to turn the occasional close game into a blowout.
Utah will be no pushover in this series, as the Jazz have too many good players on the roster and have been battle tested over the past few months of the season. They needed everything in their arsenal to get past a beat-up team in the first series however and the leap to going toe-to-toe with the Warriors will likely prove too much over the course of a few games. Golden State can use this challenge to propel itself further through the playoffs as the Warriors dispatch their opponents quickly and efficiently.
Prediction: Warriors in five
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)