So we feel like it's going to be even harder in the next round, obviously playing the best team in the league, and so we're going to do our best and play as hard as we can —Jazz forward Boris Diaw
They did it.
Yep, the Utah Jazz went on the road for the decisive Game 7 of their first playoff series in five years and, lo and behold, much to the surprise of many — but probably not to those in the Jazz locker room — they knocked off the Clippers on Sunday at Los Angeles to win their first-round postseason showdown, 4 games to 3.
And their reward?
A second-round matchup against Golden State, the league's best team over the last three seasons — last year's NBA Finals meltdown against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers notwithstanding.
The Warriors, who captured the NBA championship in 2015 and then won a league-record 73 regular-season games last season before blowing a seemingly safe 3-1 lead in the title series with the Cavs, responded to that bitter disappointment by signing superstar forward Kevin Durant last summer.
They again posted the league's best regular-season record, 67-15, during the 2016-17 campaign, then dusted the Portland Trail Blazers in a four-game, first-round series sweep to start this year's playoffs.
Thus, nobody's giving the Jazz much of a chance when they square off in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series Tuesday in Oakland, California.
Utah's players know they'll have their hands full with the talented Warriors' team, but the Jazz aren't looking for a towel to throw in before this second-round matchup even gets under way.
"They're obviously a great team and can put points on the board," Jazz swingman Joe Ingles, who busted out of a shooting slump with a solid 12-point performance in Game 7, said of the Warriors in Utah's victorious postgame locker room Sunday at the Staples Center. "So again for us, defensively it's going to be huge."
"It's a challenge," Utah center Rudy Gobert told KUTV-Channel 2 sportscaster Dave Fox, "but we believe in our ability to win and we've got to prepare, get ready and try and get a win."
While the Jazz franchise makes its foray into the playoffs' second round for the first time since 2010, the Warriors are old hands at this whole postseason thing and have their sights set squarely on winning their second NBA championship in three years.
Adding Durant to an explosive Golden State lineup that already featured the likes of All-Star performers Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green makes the Warriors an overwhelming favorite to continue their latest postseason run.
Golden State won two of three regular-season meetings with the Jazz, including a 30-point blowout (104-74) back in December. But the Jazz rarely had their entire injury-plagued lineup available when they faced the Warriors, who've won seven of the two teams' last eight meetings.
The outcome may hinge on whether the Jazz can find a way to get the high-scoring Warriors to play at Utah's much slower, more deliberate pace, thus cutting down Golden State's number of possessions and reducing the Warriors' opportunities to put together those devastating double-digit scoring runs they've become so famous for over the last few seasons.
Jazz big man Boris Diaw, a 14-year NBA veteran who won an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, knows what lies ahead for him and his Utah teammates.
"That's the rules of the playoffs is the further you go, the harder it gets," he told Fox following Sunday's win. "So we feel like it's going to be even harder in the next round, obviously playing the best team in the league, and so we're going to do our best and play as hard as we can."
Here's the position-by-position matchup breakdown:
Steph Curry vs. George Hill: Curry, the league's two-time reigning MVP, averaged 29.8 points, 6.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds a game in Golden State's first-round sweep of the Blazers. His Utah counterpart, Hill, put up 16.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game against the Clippers.
When Curry gets it rolling and starts hitting 3-point bombs from all over the court, or driving and dishing like only he can do, its an impressive thing to see, and opponents often look helpless against him.
There will no doubt be moments like that in this series, but Hill and Co. will try to limit those to a minimum as best they can — which is easier said than done against arguably the league's best offensive player.
Hill had a couple of very good games in the Clippers series and is one of Utah's more experienced postseason performers.
Klay Thompson vs. Joe Ingles: Thompson (18.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg vs. Portland) is another one of the Warriors' superb outside-shooting weapons, and he erupted for a 60-point outburst this season in a game against Indiana.
Ingles (6.6 ppg, 4.0 apg, 3.9 rpg vs. L.A.) has proven to be a more than capable defender, as witnessed by the great job he did of shutting down the Clippers' J.J. Redick in that series, and "Slow-Mo" Joe has turned into a solid outside shooter this season as well.
But Ingles' lack of foot speed could be a problem trying to keep up with a guy like Thompson, who's one of three dangerous Golden State gunners.
Kevin Durant vs. Gordon Hayward: Hayward, coming off his first All-Star season and a superb showing (23.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.9 apg) against the Clippers, would typically have the advantage over his opponent in virtually every series he plays in.
But not in this one.
Durant (21.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.0 apg vs. Portland and 25.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 4.9 apg during the regular season) has battled some injuries in his first year with Golden State. But when he's healthy, he's an extremely tough matchup for anyone to guard. The Jazz have to hope that their emerging star can somewhat neutralize the third member of the Warriors' three-headed scoring beast.
Draymond Green vs. Boris Diaw: Green (13.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 7.5 apg) not only has a huge statistical advantage over Diaw (6.0 ppg, 2.6 apg, 1.7 rpg), but the Warriors' tempestuous forward is also one of the league's strongest Defensive Player of the Year candidates year in and year out.
Green can be an annoying troublemaker — his crotch-poking antics got him suspended for Game 5 of last year's Finals, helping swing the momentum in the Cavs' favor — but his contributions to the Warriors' success cannot be discounted.
Zaza Pachulia vs. Rudy Gobert: Finally, this is one area where the Jazz would seem to have a decided advantage. Gobert (8.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg vs. the Clippers) emerged as a rising star during the regular season, when he averaged 14 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, but he missed three games of the Clippers series with a knee injury, then struggled with foul trouble in Game 7.
Still, he should be able to have his way with Pachulia (6.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg) in a matchup which will likely encourage the Warriors to play small-ball instead, moving Green to center and forcing the Jazz to choose whether they want to keep Gobert on the floor.
Utah: Ageless old pro Joe Johnson was stellar against the Clippers, averaging 15.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and played an instrumental role in all four Utah wins vs. Los Angeles. Big man Derrick Favors — who would normally start at the power forward spot — had a couple of huge games off the bench to help the Jazz beat L.A., and he gives Utah solid options at both the center and forward spots. Rodney Hood, normally Utahs starting shooting guard, struggled with his shot at times against the Clippers, but had a solid Game 7. Backup point guards Dante Exum, Raul Neto and Shelvin Mack will try to hold down the fort when Hill needs a breather.
Golden State: Big man JaVale McGee has been a valuable addition to their lineup and was extremely solid in the sweep of the Blazers, and Andre Iguodala is a proven veteran and tough defender who was MVP of the NBA Finals two years ago. Shaun Livington and Matt Barnes have been battling injuries, so their contributions in this series could be limited. Former Jazzman Ian Clark and veteran David West have each had their moments.
Utah: Quin Snyder continues to prove himself as one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the entire league. He and his staff somehow found a way to guide an injury-riddled lineup to 51 regular-season wins, and Snyder's energetic, intense coaching style helped his young team take three road wins in the series triumph over L.A. despite having Gobert sidelined for three games and Hayward for most of another one.
Golden State: Steve Kerr is a proven commodity in the coaching profession, with one NBA championship and a runner-up showing already under his belt. But he's been battling serious issues with his surgically repaired back and had to sit out Games 3 and 4 against Portland. Assistant coach Mike Brown has filled in just fine in Kerr's absence, but many folks feel like having Kerr running the show from the bench — and not from afar — will be instrumental in the Warriors' chances of winning another championship.
Style of play
Utah: The Jazz are the slowest-paced team in the league, and their deliberate offensive style and fierce defensive mentality has served them very well, proving extremely effective against opposing teams' efforts to score easy transition buckets. They are a 180-degree contrast to ...
Golden State: With a much faster-paced offense and plenty of transition opportunities, the Warriors boast one of the league's best run-and-gun scoring offenses, along with a strong defense. It'll be interesting to see whether Utah can succeed in its attempt to slow things down and force the Warriors to play at a Utah-friendly pace, or if Golden State's greyhounds will be able to push the tempo and wind up running the Jazz right out of the arena.