The Utah Jazz fought admirably for the mere right to be in the playoffs on national television this week, and played close to their defensive peak in a demonstrative, postseason-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns. There was much rejoicing, a storm of confetti, and a celebration of sorts, as a group of plucky upstarts officially completed their season-long goal of crossing the playoff threshold.
In a way, it's a good thing that the Utah Jazz have had their victory. Because in a series against an opponent as formidable as the San Antonio Spurs, they're simply not all that likely to see many more.
On a purely superficial level, one can begin to draw comparative lines between this year's Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies team that toppled the Spurs in the first round last season. Both, when at their best, move the ball and balance their scoring. Both lean heavily on their highly productive tandem of big men to anchor their offense, and would thus theoretically put a lot of pressure on the Spurs to counter their work inside. Both have speedy point guards capable of playing terrific defense against Tony Parker, and coaches that manage to get quite a bit out of their flawed teams.
Yet even making those kinds of comparisons loses sight of the situation, and assumes the Spurs as stagnant. For reasons of health, strategy, and balance, this is a far different team; a healthy Manu Ginobili could have been enough to save San Antonio last year on his own, and when we also account for the Spurs' improved, damn-near-unstoppable offense, it becomes more and more difficult to see this San Antonio team suffering a similarly premature exit—in the first round, or the second, for that matter.
Here are a few notes on the nature of the team's matchups thus far, and their prospects going forward in this series:
- San Antonio has a habit of double-teaming Al Jefferson pretty aggressively despite the fact that Tim Duncan draws primary on-ball defensive duty. The Spurs have always been great at varying their double-coverage; the second man rarely comes from the same place twice in a row, making it incredibly difficult for Jefferson to read the coverage quickly and respond with a well-timed pass. Expect to see Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson, and Duncan's opposite big used to particular effect in these double-team situations.
- The Spurs' have the league's top-ranked offense for a reason, and regardless of the Jazz's independent defensive success in their regular season finale, they're far, far from trustworthy on that end. And, for that matter, given the fickle nature of Utah's spacing, so too are they on offense; the Jazz are generally more effective with control of the ball, but they're hardly steady. Translation: one of these teams executes consistently, and the other will go home in five games.
- Late-season performance in a general, team-wide sense may not actually carry over to the playoffs, but player-specific streaks of play seem hold a bit more relevance. That's why I'm curious to see how Devin Harris fares in what could be a pretty prominent role; Harris has the potential to be both a valuable defender and a knockdown shooter (he shot 42 percent from beyond the arc in 12 April games) in this series, provided he keeps pace with his performance over the last dozen games or so. Harris will undoubtedly be tasked with checking Parker—a responsibility that earned him some initial prominence as a Dallas Maverick in the 2006 playoffs—and based on the way we've seen him defend of late, Harris may actually be able to mitigate some of Parker's advantage. Harris theoretically has the speed to keep pace with Parker, but he's been fairly non-committal on the defensive end for most of this season. If he's tuned into the game, he could possibly—possibly—give Parker and the Spurs some initial trouble. If not, well, Utah's bigs aren't typically reliable enough to protect against penetration on the back line.
- The trouble with the Spurs: Can any coach in the league be trusted more than Gregg Popovich to make adjustments in the face of initial difficulty?
- Paul Millsap has played at an All-NBA level this season, but thus far the Spurs have managed to keep him under wraps. In Utah's four games against San Antonio this season (including one gimme game, in which Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan all sat), Millsap has averaged a mere 11.0 points on 39.5 percent shooting—numbers well below the norm, and frankly well below what the Jazz will need from him in this series. Credit should go to Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw—both of whom managed to keep Millsap in check despite being seemingly outmatched—and San Antonio's cast of rotating defenders, scrambling on the weak side to cover for the doubles against Jefferson.
- Utah's not-so-secret weapon is their three-big lineup, in which Ty Corbin is able to use Millsap, Jefferson, and Derrick Favors all on the floor at the same time. Yet because of Leonard's stellar work on the glass and ability to stretch the floor, San Antonio may be better equipped to defend those three bigs than any team in the league. Ditto for Stephen Jackson—who while not a rebounder, has plenty of experience bothering big men on the defensive end with his pesky defense—and Diaw. Either way, the worst-case scenario for the Spurs seems to be the consistent outscoring of an inferior offense. San Antonio just has too many advantages across the board to be accounted for, and Utah—while fun, and a welcome inclusion in the postseason—simply isn't long for the playoff world.
Spurs in five—the "gentleman's sweep."