Utah Jazz: Could first-round showdown against banged-up Warriors be ideal?

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 16: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on March 16, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 16: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on March 16, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Although no one would have imagined it even a few weeks ago, with how banged up the Golden State Warriors have been, could they end up being an ideal first-round playoff matchup for the Utah Jazz?

All season long, the narrative in the crowded Western Conference has been that the lower playoff teams battling for position need to do whatever it takes to avoid finishing in the seventh or eighth spot in the West. Ending the season there would mean a first-round showdown against either the daunting Houston Rockets or the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who of course boast four All-Stars and two recent MVPs.

This idea has been extremely pertinent for the Utah Jazz who in their recent push have surged as high as fifth place in the West, currently find themselves in eighth and really could end up anywhere in between those spots based on the outcome of the final games of the season. All along, the desire to get out of the playoff basement and earn a sixth seed or better to avoid the Rockets or Warriors has been a major goal. After all, many have presumed that a first-round matchup against either team would simply result in being swept out of the playoffs.

But all of a sudden, that seventh seed and a first-round bout against Golden State isn’t looking so bad.

Now hear me out – I’m well aware of the difference between the regular season and the playoffs. Especially for a team that has waltzed its way to the Finals three years in a row, it’s quite understandable how a squad like the Warriors could get a little indifferent about regular season games or fighting tooth and nail to earn the top overall seed. As long as they’re in the postseason, they’re a talented enough squad to figure it out.

Regardless of any regular season struggles, a full-strength Warriors team should be able to make relatively light work of the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, even with Utah becoming a red hot team that has turned things around in a major way.

However, it just so happens that the Warriors are looking far from full-strength at the moment.

Sunday’s contest between the Jazz and Warriors was perfect evidence of the issues the defending champs are facing right now. All four of their stars – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – were absent for the matchup.

Sure, some of their ailments were far worse than others. Green was set to play but was a late scratch with flu-like symptoms. However, it should be noted that he’s been banged up, too, dealing with both a shoulder and pelvis injury on separate occasions. Meanwhile, Durant is suffering from rib soreness that’s set to be reevaluated in the next week or so. The same goes for Klay Thompson who’s dealing with a fractured right thumb.

None of those appear all that serious, and quite frankly, one would assume that this Warriors team would be able to get the band back together in plenty of time for the playoffs and set out to make some noise, likely writing off this trio of injury woes more as precaution than dire straights. However, such doesn’t seem to be the case at all for Steph Curry.

Curry had been dealing with yet another bout of ankle issues that had kept him sidelined for six games before making his return to action in last Friday’s contest against the Atlanta Hawks. Unfortunately, during that game Steph suffered yet another injury as teammate JaVale McGee stumbled and fell onto his leg. The incident resulted in an MCL sprain that will reportedly keep Curry sidelined for at least three weeks.

I don’t know if you have a calendar handy, but that just so happens to be exactly when the playoffs start.

But what’s even more significant is that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was adamant that there was “no way” Curry would be able to play in the first round of the playoffs. Here’s exactly what he had to say on the matter:

"“Oh, there’s no way he’s playing in the first round. There’s no way. So yeah, we have to be ready to play without him and see how he’s coming along. The good thing is, we’ve been through this. We should feel good about our ability to play through this stuff.We also know that Steph has a history of coming back strong from injuries. So there’s a good chance, if all goes well, he comes back during the playoffs at some point, we’re at full steam. So that’s the goal and that’s our plan.”"

In an interview from Sunday evening, Curry of course stated that he hopes to prove his coach wrong and beat that time table, but based on what has been said of the situation and what we know of the severity of the injury, it looks like a very real possibility that Curry will indeed be out of commission for their first round series – a series that could very well pit them against the Utah Jazz, who find themselves in eighth place for now only because Minnesota, who holds the exact same record, owns the tiebreaker.

That said, assuming Durant, Thompson and Green are all good to go, wouldn’t that team still be too foreboding that the Jazz wouldn’t want to touch them in the first round? That could be the case, but I would also venture to say, “not so fast.”

Following a loss to the Timberwolves on March 11 in which Curry didn’t play, Durant went as far as to say that “it’s weird not having Steph out there.” His absence certainly made their offense appear out of sync and the normally unstoppable Warriors actually appeared to be quite mortal with Curry out of commission.

The numbers certainly back this up. On the season, when Curry is on the floor, Golden State posts an astounding offensive rating of 120.4, which would be far and above the best in the league if maintained at all times throughout the course of the season. However, with him off the court, the Warriors are 14.4 points per 100 possessions worse on offense with an offensive rating of 106. That mark wouldn’t even be good enough to crack the top half of the NBA.

In games without Curry this season, the Warriors are a middling 13-9. Golden State has also lost two of their last three games in which Durant played but Steph didn’t. In short, he’s extremely important to their team (no duh, right?) and if he’s unable to go, it certainly is going to be a major detriment to them come playoff team.

Sure, Durant, Thompson and Green will still be an absolute handful that could very well wipe out the Jazz or whoever else they face in the first round without a second thought. But then again, Utah has matched up relatively well with Golden State this season, beating a fully healthy Warriors squad by 30 (their worst loss of the season) back on January 30 and easily defeating the banged-up version on Sunday night by 21 (their third worst loss of the season).

Consider that Curry may very well not be available for the entirety of the first round and suddenly the question becomes, would you rather have the Jazz go up against a red-hot Portland Trail Blazers team? A dangerous Oklahoma City team? A near-invincible Houston Rockets team? Or a Curry-less Warriors team?

That still might be a tough answer, but then if Durant, Thompson and/or Green are also at less than 100 percent, suddenly this banged-up Warriors squad isn’t looking so unbeatable. Considering that Utah’s style was once considered a potential ‘kryptonite’ of sorts for that of the Warriors (though it admittedly has been far from successful in the big picture thus far), perhaps this perfect storm would finally make it so the Jazz could find success and a favorable matchup going against the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

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Even after saying all this, by no means am I anywhere close to writing off the Warriors. There’s plenty of reasons why they’ve made it to three straight NBA Finals and it’s not just because of Stephen Curry. He has admittedly played a huge part, though, so his purported absence will without a doubt make a big difference.

And it’s a big enough difference that, suddenly, finishing in seventh place doesn’t look as hopeless as it once did. The relentlessly competitive Jazz aren’t going to aim to finish in any one particular spot in the standings, but rather to fight to win all eight of their remaining games to earn as high of a seed as possible.

A lot could change between now and then, including Steph Curry returning earlier than presumed and the Warriors being just as daunting as ever. Nevertheless, based on what we know right now, if the chips end up falling such that Utah earns the seventh seed come season’s end, despite what one would normally presume, a first-round bout against the Warriors may not turn out to be such a bad thing after all…