The Golden State Warriors appeared to have Game 2 in hand early. They jumped out to a 12-3 lead in the first three minutes. Overall, Golden State dominated the first quarter and held a 33-15 lead after one period.
The rest of the game was far less impressive. Utah outscored the Warriors in both the second and third quarter and continued to put pressure on the Warriors the entire night. While the Jazz never managed to cut the margin to fewer than six points after that 12-3 run, they continued to fight their way back into the game. The Warriors would go on extended scoring runs, but the Jazz countered all of them to keep the game within 10 points for most of the night.
Utah will return to Salt Lake City, where they have one of the league's biggest homecourt advantages. ESPN and FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine estimated that the altitude of Salt Lake City gives the Jazz the largest homecourt advantage in the league (6.2 points per game) back in 2013.
Utah's massive homecourt advantage, combined with their solid performance in Game 2, spells trouble for the Warriors heading into Saturday night's game. Golden State has lost six of their last eight Game 3's, and all signs point to them having a solid chance at doing so in Salt Lake City. Here are some trends to watch from Game 2 that will impact the Warriors' chances of winning their first road game of the second round.
1. The Status of George Hill
George Hill missed Game 2 due to a flare-up in the injured toe that he has been fighting through for most of this season. The Jazz managed to keep Game 2 close in spite of his absence, and his possible return for Game 3 could spell trouble for the Warriors.
Hill has never been a dynamic scoring threat like his opponent, but he is nonetheless an incredibly important part of Utah's success. He is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end, as he leverages his gargantuan wingspan (6'9" despite his 6'3" frame per DraftExpress) to harass guards on the perimeter, and his decent bulk makes him harder to bully on switches. Hill ranked in the 88th percentile on the defensive end this season per Synergy Sports. While Steph Curry did not have a significantly better outing in Game 2 than he did in Game 1, that trend is unlikely to continue without Hill on the floor.
On the offensive end, Hill may be even more helpful to Utah's efforts in Game 3. Shelvin Mack and Dante Exum, the two players who absorbed Hill's point guard minutes, shot a combined 6 of 17 from the floor and turned the ball over five times. Hill, by contrast, is one of the league's most efficient point guards with the ball in his hands; he averaged just 1.7 turnovers per game in the regular season, one of the lowest numbers in the league among starting point guards. Mack, the Game 2 starter, averaged 1.6 turnovers per game during the regular season but in 10 fewer minutes per game than Hill.
Golden State is deadly in transition; they were the second-best team in the league in transition during the regular season per Synergy Sports, but they used more possessions in transition than any other team in the league. Their lethal shooting and excellent passing make them nearly impossible to stop once they start leaking out. If Hill can return for Game 3, that alone will cut down on the number of possessions that Utah has to defend while scrambling back on that end of the floor.
2. The Forward Battle Heats Up
Kevin Durant had a mediocre Game 1, putting up 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists on a relatively inefficient 17 attempts from the floor. His counterpart Gordon Hayward, however, struggled through a 12 point performance on 15 shots with only four rebounds and four assists. Hayward managed to hold Durant mostly in check but ultimately lost to his matchup on both ends of the floor.
Game 2 was an entirely different affair. Durant poured in 25 points on just 13 shots, as he battled his way through contact all night to the tune of 15 free throw attempts. He also led the Warriors in rebounding with 11 crucial boards and helped keep Golden State's offense moving with seven assists. He had a huge night across the board and managed to fit in a posterizing dunk over Rudy Gobert after a Utah turnover allowed the Warriors to run in transition:
While Durant was impressive, Gordon Hayward also had a huge night. Hayward led the game in scoring with 33 points and managed to do so on only 21 shots. He also dished out 4 assists and grabbed 5 boards to help Rudy Gobert on the glass.
Utah will need Hayward to have another brilliant showing in Game 3 to win on their home floor. While Durant also had a much better showing than his Game 1 performance, the disparity between their respective outings was far smaller than it was in the opening game of the series. That trend will have to continue on Saturday night for Utah to come out on top.
3. Picking up the Pace
The first game of this series carried on at a slower pace than Utah's 30th ranked regular season pace. Game 2, however, flew along at an estimated pace of 100.3 possessions per 48 minutes per Basketball-Reference--quicker than Golden State's fourth-quickest pace from the regular season. Without Hill to run the offense for the Jazz, the more explosive duo of Mack and Exum looked to run far more often than usual. Utah nearly matched Golden State's output in transition, with 18 points on the break to 19 for the Warriors.
Golden State, as stated earlier, was the second-most effective team in transition during the regular season in terms of points per possession. The team in first place? That would be the Utah Jazz, who averaged 1.217 points per transition possession to Golden State's 1.207. However, Utah only finished 9% of their possessions during the regular season in transition; only the Dallas Mavericks finished a smaller percentage of their possessions in the fast break.
The points per possession stats are somewhat misleading; the Warriors are clearly the more effective transition team, as they finished more than twice as many possessions (18.5%) in transition. However, Utah's efficacy on the break means that they don't have to take their feet off the gas pedal in transition and pull back for a halfcourt set. While their best chance in this series will be limiting the Warriors' speed advantage, the Jazz can try to run a little more than usual in Game 3, especially with the altitude advantage on their side.
This Game 3 represents Utah's best chance at taking a game from the Warriors in this series. Golden State's spotty history in Game 3's coupled with Utah's huge homecourt advantage means that this upcoming game has all the markers of a trap game. If Utah can build on their successes from Game 2 and work George Hill back into the fold, Golden State will face their biggest challenge of the playoffs thus far on Saturday night.