It doesn't matter that the Utah Jazz won Monday night, snapping the Warriors' 14-game win streak.
No, really, it doesn't.
The Warriors lost that game on purpose, as Steve Kerr benched his starters in the fourth quarter of Game 81 of the year, leaving Javale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and James Michael McAdoo to play down the stretch together in a tight contest. Utah had no problem putting the Warriors away 105-99.
But just because the outcome doesn't mean anything doesn't mean that we didn't learn something important from Monday's contest — the first three-and-a-half quarters were telling.
When the Warriors are playing their best basketball (and probably when they're playing a bit below their best, too) there's not a team in the NBA that can take them in a seven-game series.
They're too good in transition for the Spurs (which renders LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker unplayable), too defensively sound for the Rockets (as we saw in their last matchup), and they have a psychological advantage over the Clippers that can only be described as "traumatizing".
But the Jazz — the Jazz could give the Warriors problems.
This is not to say that Utah is poised to upset Golden State in the postseason, should the two teams meet — let's make that abundantly clear — but Monday's contest highlighted a truth that has been simmering all year: The Jazz are the team that can push the Warriors the hardest in the Western Conference playoffs.
It's not that Utah is a title-contending team — not yet, anyway — but they present matchup nightmares for Golden State that no other possible Western Conference playoff opponent can match.
And that starts with the man known as the Stifle Tower:
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The Warriors have no answer for Rudy Gobert
Gobert's evolution as a center has been wildly enjoyable to watch unfold. Every year he's been in the league he's taken another huge step forward in his game.
We all know about Gobert's value as a rim protector — he's the best in the league.
The way Golden State combats this is to play smallball. This makes perfect sense — the Warriors are one of the best teams in the NBA at stretching the floor with Draymond Green, Kevin Durant or even David West playing the 5, and that draws Gobert away from the hoop and typically into a state of indecision.
Gobert is a really good defender on the perimeter for a man of his stature, but that's not where he should be living. Taking the best shot blocker way from the paint and playing arguably their best lineup at the same time should be a win for Golden State, right?
Well, it's not that easy, as the Warriors found out.
Gobert had 17 points and 18 rebounds in Monday's win, and no matter what the Warriors wanted to do, they couldn't stop him from getting to the rim.
This is a maturation in Gobert's game — in years prior (and even early this year) — if he was stretched out defensively, he rarely took advantage on offense. That was not the case Monday night, and it's hard to see what Golden State could do in the future to stop it.
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Boris Diaw knows how to kill what he helped create
The Warriors playbook is effectively a blend of Spurs defenses and Suns 7-Seconds-Or-Less era offenses. There's some other stuff in there, of course, but the two main influences make sense when you remember that Steve Kerr played for Gregg Popovich and hired Alvin Gentry, an assistant on that Suns team (of which Kerr was the general manager), to be the Warriors' "offensive coordinator" in 2014-15.
But Boris Diaw was around those teams too, playing for Mike D'Antoni's Suns and Pop's Spurs teams.
And while he might be graying and boasting a just-about pot belly at age 34, the Frenchman still has a deftly deadly game.
The Jazz like to use Diaw as a primary facilitator when he's on the court, often times running the offense through the post or elbow. He can't dribble-drive (or can he?), but he's crafty enough to still tug on or collapse a defense.
And Diaw's game is the perfect encapsulation of the Jazz's excellent offense.
Diaw isn't a player that necessitates a Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala matchup, but he can bully Kevin Durant or a smaller player in the low post. His versatility gives Utah's second unit a viable playmaker (that's different than a scorer) something many teams in the Western Conference lack and every team, including Golden State, has a tough time matching up against.
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Joe Ingles is so underrated
Ingles is a 29-year-old, Australian Boris Diaw, and while he had an up-and-down game Monday, he showed how lethal that kind of all-around game can be.
Ingles shot 44 percent from behind the arc this year, second in the NBA, and while he only knocked down one of six 3-pointers Monday, the opportunities for open shots were plentiful and he made up for a few misses with someexcellentpassing. Ingles had seven assists in the game, with none better than this pick-and-roll feed past Andre Iguodala.
Basketball is a game of mismatches and Ingles finds ways to create them every night. When you have a secondary playmaker like him (or Diaw) on the court with the shooters and scorers (chief among them Gordon Hayward, who sat out Monday's game), you have an offense that can create defensive mismatches and thrive in the half court — critical in the postseason.
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Stephen Curry can't check off-ball George Hill
Hill can be a point guard — a pretty good, perhaps even top-10 one at that — but in Utah's system and with Diaw, Ingles and Hayward all strong playmakers from the wings, he doesn't have to be, and on Monday that swung the game in Utah's favor (during the portion we're taking seriously).
Hill hit 5-of-7 3-pointers against the Warriors, with all but one coming on a play where he was off the ball. This is Hill at his best.
Yes, he can create his own shots, and shots for others, but he's best when he can maneuver around the court without the ball and find open spaces to shoot. Hill isn't Klay Thompson, but he does have a 60 percent effective field goal rating on shots taken without the benefit of a dribble.
Having a combo guard like that — particularly one who is good on pull-up 3s in semi-transition, like Hill — forces teams to dedicate better defenders to stopping him.
It's no coincidence that Hill had a good night — Stephen Curry is many positive things, but a lock-down defender he is not. Had Klay Thompson and Hayward played (and the Warriors cared about the outcome), Steve Kerr would have faced a tough conundrum when it comes to matchups — and it's this that's at the heart of why Utah is Golden State's toughest opponent in the West.
Curry can't stick with Hill, but can Kerr put Klay Thompson on the Jazz point guard? Where do you hide Curry in that scenario? Both Dante Exum and Shelvin Mack — Utah's two other point guards — can drive on Curry with ease because of their size, and you can't put him on Gordon Hayward, either.
No, the Warriors are pretty much stuck with Curry on Hill, who perhaps unsurprisingly has made 71 percent of his 3-pointers against the Warriors over the last three years.
But with Green, Thompson, and perhaps even Andre Iguodala on the court, the Warriors should be in a good position. Let Hill get his and lock down the rest of the team.
Which brings us back to Gobert and the now central conundrum — go small and get burned on the glass and with dunks (Green was minus-13 in the game), or play big and allow him to play hoop goalie (Gobert had two blocks and affected the trajectory of at least a dozen more)?
The Warriors only have one counter:
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Because of the system and the depth and the matchup problems the Jazz present the Warriors, Golden State really doesn't have any other option but to trust that Javale McGee — their uber-athletic but often erratic 7-footer — can provide quality minutes.
And that is a roller-coaster ride that a team that set the NBA record for wins over the last three years isn't used to experiencing.
Some nights, McGee is a monster — a poor man's Gobert, blocking shots, running the floor with precision, and dunking everything that goes near the rim.
Other nights, he's completely spun and useless within seconds of taking the court.
Most of the time, he seems to alternate these two parallel Javales between possessions.
Golden State is a significantly better team than the Jazz, despite Utah's schematic advantages. A team with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson is always going to be favorited. Add in Andre Iguodala off the bench and you have something special.
But it's that fifth man on the court — the true center needed against the Jazz's top lineup — whether it be the oftentimes unplayable Zaza Pachulia (four turnovers Monday), or the woefully overmatched James Michael McAdoo, that can help turn those small advantages Utah has into things that can break the game.
McGee can be the man to stop it — the foil to Utah's deadly 3-5 pick-and-roll and elite rim protection — or he can exacerbate the issues by, well, being the Javale McGee we've all come to know over the last few years.
The Warriors would certainly take the series from Utah, but having to rely on No. 1 to make a positive contribution to win is certainly worth two games for the Jazz, right?