By Dan Clayton
This one probably should have been over with 3:55 left in the first quarter, when a Stephen Curry and-1 play put the Golden State Warriors up 29-5 against the Utah Jazz.
You could even argue that it should have been over at 11:02 local time on Thursday morning. That’s when the Jazz released their injury report for the game, saying that the home team would be without four of its preferred starters, plus a bench-scoring spark plug they have yet to see this season. But Utah cobbled together a provisional rotation that had other ideas, mucking up what ultimately became a 106-99 Warriors win.
Without starters George Hill (toe), Gordon Hayward (finger), Rodney Hood (hamstring) and Derrick Favors (knee), Utah had to get creative. They opened with a group that had previously played just 1.2 total minutes together in two separate games, and the lack of chemistry was palpable as the Jazz simply couldn’t score in those first eight minutes.
The Warriors, though, had no problems, despite playing last night on the front end of a dreaded West-to-East back-to-back. Curry had 14 of his game-high 26 in that opening frame, and it looked as though the game would end predictably.
But hang on.
A Rudy Gobert dunk (plus one) with 7:21 in the third started a 12-0 Utah run, and that was just stage one of their comeback attempt. The Jazz just made it ugly. Reserve Joe Ingles stole three straight possessions from the Warriors and capped the run with a three-pointer. In the fourth quarter, it was another Ingles three that brought the Jazz as close as they’d get: 84-79.
After that, the Warriors just forced too many empty possessions for their hosts. Simply put, the two-time reigning champs put it away with defense.
Golden State’s per-possession defense isn’t as formidable as last year (ninth-ranked instead of fourth), but they have length everywhere and enough grit to make teams uncomfortable. That’s what they did every time it got close in the fourth quarter, even though their own offense was relatively anemic in that final period. Utah pulled to within five, then Golden State held them to seven straight empty possessions.
The Warriors are that good, able to flip the defensive switch like that. But it was also a good reminder of how fragile things are for NBA teams relying on the health of key guys to win games. Sure, a tired, coasting Warriors squad let Utah’s B and C teams scrap this into a close contest, but the Jazz’s chances of winning without those four starters and scoring sub Alec Burks were always slim.
That they came close is a credit to three guys who played out of their minds. Gobert didn’t miss a shot and notched a 20 and 17 double-double, narrowly missing the career high he set two nights earlier. Ingles had a career-best 21, including five threes, and also snatched four steals. And Shelvin Mack had a season-high 19 to go with five assists.
That’s not to say the Jazz are falling apart in the face of injury. Even with this loss they’re 7-2 since November 23. They still have the conference’s fifth-best record and point differential, and a top-10 offense and defense. All this with their preferred starting five having logged 12 total minutes together on the year.
The Warriors also got 21 and 11 out of Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green had a near triple-double (13-10-8) despite leaving briefly to attend to a turned ankle. The Dubs are now 2-0 on their current 5-game trip, with games left at Memphis, Minnesota and New Orleans.