The Warriors smelled trouble from the moment they left Los Angeles for their overnight flight to Salt Lake City, where on Thursday night, precisely 20 hours after they disposed of the Clippers in LA, they would face the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz announced Wednesday that four players – including three starters – would be out with injuries.
Trap Game, eh? It’s not a cliché, not in today’s NBA, where the schedule is both unforgiving and remorseless.
And then on Thursday morning the Warriors received information that a fourth Utah starter, leading scorer Gordon Hayward, also would not be available.
With one healthy Jazz starter greeting the hottest team in the league, the Warriors caught a slight whiff of Eau de Upset. Acutely aware they were facing a severely shorthanded squad the Warriors swallowed hard and went immediately for the blowout.
They failed. Though they would win their 16th of 17 games and run their record to 20-3 by silencing the Jazz, 106-99, the Warriors also got a reminder that severely patchwork teams tend to bring the fight.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Stephen Curry told reporters at Vivint Smart Home Arena, “but got a win.”
Oh, it was beautiful early. The Warriors running and gunning and smothering Utah, taking a 29-5 lead barely eight minutes into the game and holding a 65-46 advantage at the half. They were achieving their goal of quickly opening this gift of a game to allow their starters to watch most of the second half.
Rarely is it that easy under these circumstances, and this would not be an exception. When patchwork NBA teams accept that winning is not an option, they set about avoiding embarrassment.
With a 12-0 run in the middle of the third quarter, the Jazz cut the deficit to nine (73-64), and when the Warriors steadied themselves to go up 14 (80-66) with 2:45 left in the third, the Jazz fashioned a 13-4 run to narrow it to 84-79.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr blamed it on a “lack of focus,” which is a symptom of presuming victory.
“Our first quarter was great; we pushed the ball. Our defensive intensity was fantastic and then we let down,” Kerr said. “We started turning it over with some careless, purposeless plays. We didn’t really have an idea of what we were trying to accomplish and then some defensive mistakes like not getting out on their shooters, and they took advantage.”
Outscoring the Warriors 53-41 in the second half, the Jazz – playing without Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and George Hill – made the vastly superior team sweat.
“They obviously played with a lot of energy,” said Curry, who scored a game-high 26 points. “They didn’t fold and we got a little stagnant on offense, it happens, but you just got to be able to finish the game out. The way we started gave us an opportunity to withstand their run and never really have the game out of hand.”
Kevin Durant ensured there would be no upset, performing the closeout with an 11-point fourth quarter. He scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half.
“Just tried to be aggressive,” Durant said. “I didn’t do a good job attacking throughout the game. I thought that was a good opportunity for me to attack. I got to the free throw line and that got me going. I got some dunks, a few cuts and Steph [Curry] helped me out as well.
“It was a weird game. It was a grind out game. We started off so well and then a three-pointer got them back in the game. They played physical later on the game and were able to take us out of our game a little bit, but we kept fighting and we got a good win on a back-to-back.”
In defeating the Jazz, the Warriors also held off two more formidable foes: fatigue and complacency. There are nights, and this was one of them, when the path to victory requires beating all three.