The Golden State Warriors cruised into the second round after a four-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. They dominated despite missing Kevin Durant and Steve Kerr for two games each.
The Utah Jazz, on the other hand, barely escaped the first round alive with a Game 7 win against the Clippers in Los Angeles. With the series set to start on Tuesday night, they will have just one day off in comparison to Golden State's week of preparation.
While the Warriors are probably upset that they won't get to play the Clippers given their domination of Los Angeles for the past few seasons, they will nonetheless have a decided advantage heading into this series. With both rosters fully healthy heading into the second round, here is a look at how the two squads measure up heading into Tuesday night.
Guards: An Unbalanced Affair
Unlike Portland's stellar duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Utah not flush with talent at the guard positions. While George Hill is in the midst of a career year in a severely under-rated career, he is simply out-matched by Stephen Curry. Hill was burned by Chris Paul time and time again in their first round series prior to Game 7, and he will have yet another impossible battle on his hands in this series.
The shooting guard disparity might be even more stark. Although Joe Ingles did a fantastic job on defense against J.J. Redick, he will not have a size advantage to exploit over Klay Thompson. Quin Snyder may look to re-insert Rodney Hood into the starting lineup to match Klay's speed, but neither player will have as much help defense on the perimeter as they did when guarding Redick
Advantage: Golden State.
Forwards: All-Star Battle
In his limited minutes, Kevin Durant was able to score and defend with ease against Portland's shaky forward rotation. He will have a much harder road ahead in his battle with Gordon Hayward. Hayward was spectacular in the first round against the Clippers. Despite missing all but nine minutes of Game 4 and scoring only 3 points, Hayward averaged 23.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game against the Clippers. He might not have the edge over Durant in normal circumstances, but he may end up having the better series if KD is not yet back to full health.
The power forward battle is a different story. Boris Diaw, the nominal starter at power forward, could double his average speed and still not be able to keep up with Draymond Green. Joe Johnson will do a better job of staying with Green than Diaw, but he will get battered by Draymond on the glass. Quin Snyder may opt to start Derrick Favors at power forward to put a bulkier defender on Green, but he will not be able to keep track of Draymond on the perimeter. Utah might be able to draw even in the small forward matchup, but they don't have anyone who can cover Draymond effectively.
Advantage: Golden State.
Centers: Bloodbath in the Making
The Warriors might have an advantage in the frontcourt overall, but they should be prepared for some painful moments near the basket in this series. Zaza Pachulia will get eaten alive by Rudy Gobert on both ends of the floor. JaVale McGee might have had an excellent series against Portland, but scoring near the basket on Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard is a far simpler task than scoring against the league's best rim protector.
Utah's advantage inside will not diminish when they have to go to the bench. Although he struggled as a starter in the first round, Derrick Favors was stellar on both ends of the floor for Utah as a bench player. The Warriors could opt to bring out some lineups with Draymond Green at center in this series, but he will get knocked around in the paint if he has to hang with Gobert or Favors for an extended period of time.
Bench: Depth vs. Depth
This is where things start to get interesting. Golden State has one of the best benches in the league, and Andre Iguodala has been incredible late in the season after a rough stretch to start the year. The long break between the first and second round also meant that Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes had more time to recover from their injuries.
However, Utah also has a very strong bench unit that can cause trouble for Golden State. Derrick Favors will stonewall JaVale McGee far more than his Portland counterparts, and Joe Johnson went supernova against the Clippers in the first round. While Golden State probably has a slightly more talented reserve crew, the health of Livingston and Barnes make this one tougher to call.
Coaching: An Enigma, of sorts
The Golden State Warriors would normally have the coaching advantage in nearly any series. Sadly, Steve Kerr's devastating health issues mean that he might be out for this series, and potentially even longer. While Mike Brown and the rest of the coaching staff will continue to run Kerr's system and will probably be in touch with him throughout the series, Kerr's sunny disposition and handling of the Warriors' rotation will be sorely missed.
Quin Snyder might not be quite on Kerr's level as a coach. However, he is still one of the better coaches in the league and just finished running circles around Doc Rivers on the clipboard in their last series. If Kerr does not return to the bench for this series, Snyder will have the upper hand.
Advantage: Utah...for now.
Key Matchup: Speed
The key matchup in this series will not be fought across one position, or even across the starting or bench units. Instead, the key matchup in this series will be the flamethrowing shooting and pace of the Warriors against the glacial movement of Utah's offense.
Golden State played at the fourth-quickest pace in the league this season per NBA.com, and are tied for first in the playoffs. Utah, on the other hand, were dead last in pace during the regular season and are somehow playing even slower during the playoffs per NBA.com.
The Warriors will have a decided advantage whenever they can get out in transition and avoid having Rudy Gobert set up shop near the rim. However, Utah has been good at preventing teams from running all year long. They were able to keep the game moving at a speed that even Boris Diaw could keep up with during the first round.
That being said, Golden State is far better at running than the Clippers. Even if Utah can keep the Warriors from driving to the rim against Gobert, Golden State can just shuttle the ball around the perimeter until they find an open 3-pointer. Utah will certainly be able to pick at Golden State's weak points inside, but they cannot match their firepower from behind the arc.
Prediction: Golden State beats Utah 4-1 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.