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The first suggestion that this would be Kevin Durant's night came in the first quarter when he recorded a rebound and an assist while seated on the court. Any remaining doubt was canceled late in Saturday's game, when he accidentally banked in a long jump shot.
Unfair? Yes. Reality? Yeah, that too.
The Golden State Warriors clearly would not have won Saturday's Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals without Durant, the primary player they added last summer. Yet if it is tempting to say the 2016-17 Jazz would have beaten the '15-16 Warriors, the scoreboard told the true story: Warriors 102, Jazz 91 at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Jazz fans taunted Golden State's Draymond Green in the second quarter as he walked to the bench with three fouls. He responded with a "2-and-0" gesture to remind them of the Warriors' lead in the series. By the night's end, the tally stood 3-0. Game 4 is Monday, when the Jazz will try to avoid a sweep and temporarily extend their season.
That's asking a lot. Whatever hope the Jazz held of winning a game in this series pretty much was canceled Saturday, when they defended Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson wonderfully, got a combined 50 points from Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert and were ahead by nine in the third quarter as a boisterous home crowd celebrated the possibilities.
The Warriors answered, as always. "That's why they are who they are," said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, aptly summarizing his team's dilemma.
Golden State would have been in trouble without Durant's offensive aggressiveness in a 38-point effort, especially when other stars were struggling. Durant's 15 baskets were more than the other starters' total, even though Curry got going at the end after missing 10 straight shots at one point.
Here's the disclaimer about Durant: If he had stayed in Oklahoma City last summer, the Thunder probably would have finished ahead of the Jazz in the West and the Jazz may have lost a first-round series with Houston instead of beating the Los Angeles Clippers. But I know that's not especially consoling at the moment.
The Jazz are having to deal with the Durant-aided Warriors now and in the foreseeable future, which has to be doubly discouraging. The goal for next season already is coming into focus. The Jazz need to figure out how to meet Golden State one round later in the playoffs.
Snyder praised his team's effort Saturday, and his feelings were justified. The Warriors were too good although the Jazz certainly could have done more. They needed the offense that Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood failed to provide, shooting a combined 4 of 20. They could have used point guard George Hill, who missed another game with a sprained toe. They could have converted Hayward's perfect passes into critical 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, but Boris Diaw missed from the left corner and Johnson missed from the right corner.
Golden State's playoff history should have worked in the Jazz's favor. The Warriors lost Game 3 in all four series last year and endured a four-quarter battle at Portland last month, trailing by 16 points before winning by six.
The Jazz were ahead at halftime (50-49), which seemed like a victory considering they had trailed by 11 points. Hood's only basket, a 3-pointer from the left corner, gave them their first lead of the series (48-47). It lasted exactly 8 seconds until David West scored for Golden State. But Gobert's two free throws gave the Jazz their halftime edge.
The crowd eagerly responded to the Jazz's 33-point quarter. "Those games at home, that's what you remember as a player," said Jazz television analyst Matt Harpring, who was instrumental in the team's run to the 2007 Western Conference finals. "Every round, it gets a little bit more crazy, which is even more fun."
The good vibes continued in the second half until the Warriors took over. That's what the Dubs tend to do. In so many ways, Game 3 for the Jazz was "definitely encouraging," Hayward said. Gobert judged his team as "getting better and better" as the series goes along.
The trouble is, the way things are developing, the Jazz will be saying the same things after another defeat Monday. And they'll be out of games.
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