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The Utah Jazz try to close the gap with Golden State

Published June 19, 2017 11:25 am

NBA • Utah won't sit and wait for the Warriors' burgeoning dynasty to crumble — the Jazz will try to close the gap through the draft and free agency.
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Mere minutes after his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers were taken out in Game 5 by the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James appeared contemplative at the postgame media podium.

"They're going to be around for a while," James said of the Warriors, who had just won their second championship in three years. "Pretty much all their big-name guys are in their 20s, and they don't show any signs of slowing down."

That thought weighs heavily on not just James, but all 29 teams chasing the juggernaut of Golden State — a team that went 16-1 in the playoffs this year and has a core that should stick together for years.

It might be particularly weighty for the Utah Jazz, who were swept by the Warriors. Coming to the upswing of their own lengthy rebuild, the Jazz (assuming they return Gordon Hayward and some other key players from last year's team) finally are competitive again. But "competitive" is a good deal below the benchmark set by Golden State.

"That's the one thing about the Warriors right now," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said on a podcast recently with Adrian Wojnarowski. "We're seeing a significant space between them and who's behind them."

It raises a question: How does a team try to adjust to the reality of Golden State? Do you try to build a team that can attack the Warriors? Do you try to hold on and wait it out until the core breaks up?

It's a question that defies easy answers.

But the Jazz are trying to remain internally focused on improvement. While general manager Dennis Lindsey said Utah will benchmark itself against its peers, including the Warriors, through wins, per-100 scoring and defense and other metrics, its gaze remains within its own organization.

"We look at how do we stay a contender — how do you move up and be more consistent?" he said. "You look a little at your competition landscapes, who are you facing in your division, and do you need more size at a position or a certain skill, or is there a certain type of guy you need. There's a certain type of art to it."

Comparing their first-round series with the Clippers to the second-round series with the Warriors, the Jazz — as every team that faced Golden State — struggled to slow down the high-tempo attack led by Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. But they also saw their own shooting slump (47.7 percent vs. Clippers to 41.9 percent vs. Warriors). Certain parts of their offense that worked against Los Angeles — Joe Johnson's isolation plays, Joe Ingles leading pick-and-rolls — seemed less effective in the Golden State series.

But it also seems like the sweep didn't crush the franchise. Both Lindsey and Snyder said they tried to be "realistic" about how they would match up with Golden State. With George Hill out for later games and Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors affected by injury, it was always going to be tough to even win a game. But Snyder said on the other hand, it was important to see how Utah compared to the Warriors in a playoff scenario.

"They've clearly shown how dominant they are, and we're realistic about that," Snyder told Wojnarowski. "But I do think the competition itself is a mirror. You learn about yourself and your team through the competition. To that extent, having a chance to play them shows you where you need to be better. That's where our focus is: Not just our guys, but our team, team-building and our roster. "

Beyond the perspective of the hunters, there's also the perspective of the hunted: On a podcast with Bill Simmons, Finals MVP Durant said the series against the Jazz was, despite a sweep, a tough one.

"We were winning games, but they were switching everything," he said. "They were running their sets all the way through. They have a good shot-blocker, so that was tough. They're a really tough team, they're going to be really good if they keep everything."

Keeping everything — that might be the biggest challenge the Jazz have this summer with impending free agency for Hayward, Hill and others. If they can keep the core together, maybe the gap won't seem quite as great after all.

kgoon@sltrib.com Twitter: @kylegoon —

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