The Golden State Warriors have probably been the top defensive team in the NBA this season, but the Utah Jazz are throwing that into question and could end the season with the title of most improved.
Consistency meets flavor of the month Saturday night when the Jazz head to Oakland, where the wild card might be that it’s rarely mattered who the Warriors are up against at home.
The Warriors (55-13), tied with the 1991-92 club for the second-most wins in franchise history, lead the NBA with 97.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.
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That defensive efficiency rating isn’t rivaled by Utah’s 102.4, but dating to Feb. 7, the Jazz (31-37) easily lead the league with a 91.3 mark while also leading in opponent field-goal percentage (39.8) and points per game (83.9). The stingy scoring average is better than next-best Indiana by 10.0 points, and the Jazz’s season mark of 94.7 is now the best in the league. Golden State’s 42.5 opponent percentage still leads the league.
After Thursday’s 80-73 road win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Jazz’s improvement has resulted in a 14-4 run while never allowing more than 100 points.
Gordon Hayward scored 22 points and is averaging 22.3 in his last seven games, but the recent surge will likely be too little too late with the Jazz still 7 1/2 games out of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot with 14 games remaining.
"We’re getting better as a group, and it’s definitely encouraging the way we’ve played," Hayward said. "As far as playoffs are concerned, we’re not mathematically out yet and we’re going to fight every game."
A little backcourt consistency could help push any remaining chances along. Starting guards Dante Exum and Rodney Hood went 0 for 11 against the Lakers. Hood has just 10 points in two games after averaging 18.3 over his previous four, while Exum has gone scoreless in consecutive games.
Demoted point guard Trey Burke, however, had 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting and is averaging 15.5 on 63.2 percent in his last two.
However the backcourt minutes shake out, they likely won’t have to deal with Golden State’s Klay Thompson.
Friday’s 112-96 win over New Orleans came without the All-Star, who has missed consecutive games because of a sprained right ankle and isn’t expected to face the Jazz.
That hasn’t disrupted the Warriors, who are bordering on invincible at home with 11 straight wins there, including four by an average of 17.3 points to open a six-game homestand. The all-time best single-season home record is out of reach – the 1985-86 Boston Celtics went 40-1 – but the Warriors are seven games from becoming the sixth team to finish 39-2. They’re also nearing the 1975-76 club record of 59 wins.
One might think the absence of Thompson would require Stephen Curry to step up, but the star point guard was 4 of 17 overall and 2 of 10 from 3-point range with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Instead, the Warriors got 22 points from Harrison Barnes, who is averaging 23.5 points on 76.9 percent in Thompson’s absence, and 56 bench points. On the homestand, Golden State reserves have shot 52.1 percent and averaged 45.8 points, which is up 10.0 from its season average.
"That’s kind of who our team is, whether guys are out or guys are hurt or whatever, we have so much depth that guys can just step up and we can compensate for that," Barnes said.
The Warriors had won six straight in the series prior to a 110-100 loss in Utah on Jan. 30. Curry scored 32 points and is averaging 28.4 in the last five meetings.