The Golden State Warriors continued their march to the Finals with their second straight sweep, finishing off the Utah Jazz in four games. Now, they get to sit back and wait on the results of a 2-2 series to determine their Western Conference Finals opponent.
The Golden State Warriors could have let their foot off the gas pedal and allowed Utah to take Game 4 to make their series a gentlemen's sweep. Maybe the Cavaliers' sweep of the Toronto Raptors changed their mind.
Either way, the Warriors clearly smelled blood and attacked the Jazz on both ends the entire night. Golden State held a 39-17 lead at the end of the first quarter and cruised to a 121-95 victory. Although the Jazz did close the gap to eight at halftime with a strong second quarter, Utah never trailed by fewer than six points after the 9-minute mark of the first quarter.
Some of the trends from this series will be important to Golden State's success in the next two rounds. In the meantime, they will get to enjoy some time off while San Antonio and Houston battle for the right to face them in the Western Conference Finals.
1. Stop or Go
The Warriors fought to keep the pace as fast as possible against the dragging pace of the Jazz, with mixed results. After playing in the fastest-paced series in Round One per NBA.com, the Warriors got bogged down in a Game 1 battle that ended with a slower pace than Utah's 30th ranked pace in the regular season. While Golden State did manage to rev up the tempo in Games 2 and 4, it is worth noting that Utah's only lead in the series (which doubled as their best game of the series) came in Game 3, which was played at an estimated pace of 92.3 possessions per 48 minutes that nearly matched Utah's average regular season speed.
That battle of pace will be important to watch in Golden State's next matchup--regardless of their opponent. The San Antonio Spurs have a grind-it-out offense and defensive focus that has quite a lot in common with Utah's style of play. The Spurs had the 27th ranked pace during the regular season per Basketball-Reference and will do all that they can to slow down the game and prevent Golden State from getting out in transition.
The Warriors' other potential opponent plays a completely different style of basketball. The Warriors were fourth in the league in pace per Basketball-Reference, but the Houston Rockets were third. Furthermore, the Rockets shattered the NBA record for three point attempts and makes in a season this year. Houston does not have a defensive anchor like Draymond Green, but they will want to run in transition almost as much as the Warriors. The Rockets finished 18% of their regular season possessions in transition per Synergy Sports, just barely behind Golden State's league-leading mark.
The Western Conference Finals will be either more of the same slow pace that the Warriors faced in this round or an up-and-down offensive affair against the Rockets. The pace of the game will be a key factor to watch in both cases.
2. The Return of Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant was barely a factor in the Warriors' series against the Trail Blazers. While he did start his playoffs on a high note with 32 points and 11 rebounds in the opening game, he missed the next two with injuries and was barely a factor in Game 4 with 10 points on seven shots in just over 20 minutes of playing time.
Durant struggled in Game 1 against the Jazz, with 17 points on 17 shots. However, he did at least manage to lock up Gordon Hayward and hold him to his worst offensive night of the playoffs (barring his nine minutes in Game 4 against the Clippers).
Durant then proceeded to take over the series. He led the Warriors in scoring in both Game 2 and Game 3. He put up 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists in Game 2 in a fantastic outing. Then, he carried the Warriors to a Game 3 win with 38 points and 13 rebounds. He kept the Warriors afloat despite a miserable night from Klay Thompson and an awful first three-quarters from Steph Curry.
While critics have maligned Durant for his isolation-heavy offense in the context of the pass-happy Warriors, Game 3 showed just why KD's isolation game can be so important in the playoffs. Even when Golden State's other stars are having off-nights, or when the Warriors are cold from beyond the arc, they can just toss the ball to Durant and let him go to work. Ultimately, Durant's one-on-one scoring ability is the final piece to the biggest factor in Golden State's success.
3. The Inevitability of Golden State's Offense
The Golden State Warriors had the second-best Defensive Rating in the regular season, and have the best Defensive Rating in the playoffs by a pretty significant margin per NBA.com. However, their defense is arguably still not the most important facet of their game.
As Kevin Durant showed with his masterful performance in Game 3, and as the Warriors showed when Durant went down with an injury during the regular season, this team does not need their offense to be firing on all cylinders to blow other teams out of the building. The Warriors have only scored fewer than 110 points twice during these playoffs--and both of those games came against the slowest-paced team in the league when they managed to slow down the game to their preferred speed.
As the playoffs progress, a Finals rubber match against the Cleveland Cavaliers seems more and more inevitable. The Cavs have managed to play far better defense in the playoffs. Furthermore, the Cavs actually lead the playoffs in Offensive Rating thus far--just ahead of Golden State. Cleveland's Offensive Rating was helped by not playing teams with the defensive prowess of the Jazz, but those offensive numbers are still quite impressive.
However, Cleveland cannot survive an off-night from LeBron in these playoffs, especially in the Finals. Cleveland continues to perform far worse with him off the floor, and the Cavs are still just 4-19 this season when LeBron sits. Their 14.3 Net Rating with LeBron on the floor craters to a ghastly -12.4 when he sits.
While it is never a good idea to bet against LeBron James, the Warriors are far better equipped to handle an off-night from any of their star players. Steph Curry can shoot 4-18 through three-quarters and Klay Thompson can shoot 1-9 but Kevin Durant can carry them to victory. On the flip side, the Warriors won 13 straight games without Durant in the lineup during the regular season. It is too early to determine the eventual NBA champion, but Golden State's offense seems to inevitably find a way to put points on the board. Their next Western Conference foe, and their presumptive Finals opponent will have to contend with one of the most unstoppable offensive forces in the history of the NBA.