The 2016-17 season has always appeared to be leading up to a third-straight NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Nothing we’ve seen so far in the playoffs has done much to change that impression. The Warriors and Cavs haven’t just looked like the favorites in their respective conferences — they’re on another level compared to their closest competition and have no clear weaknesses waiting to be exploited. While they won’t face off for at least a few more weeks, the Warriors and Cavs appear to be competing with each other to see which team can dominate most before renewing their rivalry in earnest.
They’re dead even through two rounds. One day after the Cavs beat the Toronto Raptors to complete their second sweep of the playoffs, the Warriors defeated the Utah Jazz 121-95 in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals to advance to the next round. The Jazz proved their toughness, but the title favorites were as dominant as their 59-point total margin of victory suggests. There was never any real doubt that they’d advance.
Warriors (8-0) boast +16.5 playoff point differential. Best playoff PD for champions: 71 Bucks (+14.5), 01 Lakers (+12.8), 91 Bulls (+11.7)
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 9, 2017
The Warriors have now swept two rounds of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and will get at least six days of rest before facing the San Antonio Spurs or Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on May 14 or 16.
Game 4 was closer than the final score suggests, but the result was essentially sealed in the first quarter. As in the clincher of their first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Warriors opened with a clear desire to extinguish the opponent’s hope of prolonging the season. Golden State led 39-17 after the first quarter and by as many as 24 early in the second quarter, creating a margin that looked insurmountable.
The early dominance began with terrific defense, which has been the hallmark of the Warriors’ success throughout their eight playoff wins. Utah shot 3-of-16 on two-pointers in the first quarter and struggled to get anything easy. The Warriors overplayed everything, continued to frustrate Rudy Gobert at the rim, and were only really susceptible to the Jazz’s 3-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc. Missing point guard George Hill for the third game in a row, Utah could not create consistent offense to keep up with hot starts from both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Utah deserves credit for fighting back in the second and third quarters. A 14-0 run early in the period cut the Warriors’ lead to a mere 10 points, and the Jazz cut into a rebuilt lead again just before the half to make it 60-52 at the break. The margin hovered around seven or nine points for most of the third quarter, and it was at least possible to imagine the hosts taking a lead at some point in the fourth.
That’s in part because the Jazz got the offensive consistency that had been lacking in the first quarter. Point guards Shelvin Mack (18 points on 6-of-11 FG) and Dante Exum (15 points) cannot match Hill’s talents as a defender and facilitator, but they attacked the Warriors defense and weren’t afraid to take risks. Similarly, Gordon Hayward followed his strong performances in Games 2 and 3 with a team-high 25 points (4-of-7 3FG). Hayward can become a free agent this summer and isn’t certain to return to the Jazz, but his play in this game certainly left the home fans hoping for more.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, the Warriors fended off any attempt to take control of the game. Utah never got the lead under six points, and Golden State’s inability to turn it back into a blowout felt more like a matter of focus than ability or tactics. That began to change at the end of the third quarter, when two consecutive Warriors threes changed an 87-79 game into a 14-point contest. The first make from Curry was impressive, but the second — an end-of-clock shot from Andre Iguodala off a terrific assist from Draymond Green — was a dagger.
Golden State’s sweep was never really in doubt again.
Green’s impact extended well beyond that key assist. Golden State’s fulcrum led the defensive effort at one end and excelled at the other, as well, finishing with 17 points (5-of-11 FG, 3-of-5 3FG), 11 assists, and 10 rebounds for his first triple-double of the playoffs. He was the Warriors’ most consistent player in this series and remains the leader of the only NBA defense currently playing at a championship level.
Yet the Warriors don’t sweep series just because one player puts up a triple-double. Their strength is that any of their top three scorers can take over at any time. On Monday, Splash Brothers Curry (30 points on 9-of-15 FG) and Thompson (21 points on 9-of-16 FG) caught fire early and helped to build the 22-point lead after one. Kevin Durant made no impact early, but he made several big shots to mitigate the Jazz comeback and finished with a respectable 18 points in 30 minutes.
Neither the Jazz nor the Blazers have offered reasonable answers to the many dilemmas the Warriors pose. Utah entered this series with several potential tactical advantages and struggled to execute any of them. A lingering injury to Rudy Gobert and George Hill’s inability to play in three of four games certainly had something to do with those problems, but it’s hard to believe full health would have made too much of a difference. The Warriors are as elite as teams get, and the addition of Durant appears to have given them several new wrinkles to frustrate the best opponents the conference has to offer.
At this point, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they entered the NBA Finals without a loss. The same could be said of their counterpart in the East.
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