The Utah Jazz scored a 100-88 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, a hard-fought, well-earned victory that punched their ticket as the 16th and final entrant into this year's NBA playoffs. First-time playoff coach Tyrone Corbin owed the win, in large part, to fantastic performances by three members of his meat-grinder frontcourt — sterling starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, plus ready reserve Derrick Favors — who put a game-long hurting on the Suns.
Phoenix's frontcourt entered the game down a body, as Channing Frye sat due to a right shoulder injury. But with all due respect to the 6-foot-11 Arizona product, who performed well this season and has turned himself into a nice contributor with his ability to stretch defenses, even a healthy Frye wouldn't have meant much on Tuesday; the Suns' front line just wasn't physically equipped or prepared to answer the bell against Utah's three-headed monster.
Jefferson (18 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, two blocks), Millsap (26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, three steals) and Favors (13 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks) bruised and battered Suns bigs Marcin Gortat, Robin Lopez and Markieff Morris. As Steve Luhm noted post-game at the Salt Lake Tribune, the Jazz bigs were strongest with the game in the balance late, combining for 19 points and 18 rebounds in the final 12 minutes to return Utah to the postseason.
It was a dominant performance by a lineup that an elated Jackson Rudd of Jazz blog Salt City Hoops called "so good that it doesn't even make sense." Whether or not it makes sense, the assessment is spot-on; a look inside the numbers shows that the Jazz have been positively frightening when the three big men share the floor.
Heading into Tuesday night's action, the Jazz had played Jefferson, Millsap and Favors together for a shade over 97 total minutes on the season — just under 51 minutes with the backcourt of Devin Harris and Gordon Hayward, just under 30 with Hayward and backup point guard Jamaal Tinsley, and less than 10 minutes each in stints with the combinations of Tinsley and rookie Alec Burks, Burks and Harris, Burks and Earl Watson, and Hayward and Watson, according to BasketballValue.com's Jazz lineup numbers. In those 97.27 minutes, lineups featuring the Jefferson/Favors/Millsap troika scored 115.8 points per 100 possessions for the Jazz, while allowing just 84-per-100. A Wednesday morning update following the win over the Suns via Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe shows a dip in the offensive efficiency numbers to 111.9-per-100, but even stronger defensive stats, as Utah's big lineups have now allowed just 82.3-per-100 in 113 total minutes together.
For some context, the league's most efficient offense, which belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, scores an average of 110.9 points per 100 possessions, while the league's stingiest defense, played by the Chicago Bulls, gives up an average of 98.5-per-100. The standard "small sample size alert" caveats apply, but still: That's some pretty remarkable play on both ends of the floor.
Back to Rudd's point: While a Jefferson-Favors-Millsap front line seems awkward on paper, as each member occupies sort of a tweener space rather than slotting in obviously and naturally in a traditional three-four-five alignment, you can certainly argue that their success does make at least some sense. As we've seen throughout the season, Jefferson and Millsap have developed into a sharp, multifaceted offensive tandem, complementing one another well in their inversion of the traditional center-forward paradigm.
Millsap has more frequently moved closer to the basket this season, averaging fewer attempts per game between 16 and 23 feet out and more from within nine feet of the rim, according to Hoopdata's shot location stats, which has created more space for Big Al to do his damage out on the wing — Utah's center has taken 425 shots from mid-range, according to NBA.com, compared to 322 in the restricted area and 292 from other spots in the paint. That they're both also comfortable and adept enough switching it up makes Utah's post game more versatile; with the offense running through them, Favors is free to set screens for Jazz guards, crash the offensive glass, pick up the pieces on broken plays and benefit from dump-offs resulting from penetration, as he did on Tuesday night at Lopez's expense. They can create space and opportunities for one another to thrive on offense within their respective comfort zones, which can make for some nightmarish covers for opposing defenses.
They may run into problems on the other end, as none of the three are elite defenders — Millsap ranks 146th among NBA players in overall points allowed per possession, Jefferson ranks 164th and Favors is an unseemly 372nd, according to MySynergySports.com's play-by-play analysis. That said, they're not as bad as you might think. Millsap has taken major strides over the past two seasons (he was 282nd in '09-'10 and 264th in '10-'11) and he's one of the most opportunistic frontcourt players in the league, consistently ranking among the league's leaders in both steals per game and steal percentage, even while playing predominantly at the four spot. Jefferson's significantly improved over the sieve he was two years ago; he was 299th in '09-'10. And Favors ... well, just ask Mr. Gortat.* Add to that the defensive activity of moving, engaged wings like Hayward, Burks and Harris, and while 84 points per 100 possessions seems like an awful tough number to continually replicate, you definitely have the makings of a defensive lineup that can hold up better than it seems to on paper.
(* A caveat on Favors: While his first-half torturing of Gortat was brutally brilliant, he hasn't yet developed game-in, game-out consistency in realizing his potential as an active and fearsome rim defender. The Georgia Tech product has blocked 3.8 percent of opponents' field-goal attempts for the season; historically, the league leaders in that particular metric typically turn back between 7 percent and 10 percent of available shots, so we shouldn't extrapolate our recent memories of Favors ruining Gortat's night too readily.)
At first blush, it's tempting to squint at Jefferson, Millsap and Favors and see Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur, the trio of bigs that helped the Memphis Grizzlies throttle and upset the San Antonio Spurs in last postseason's 1 vs. 8 matchup. It's especially tempting given the likelihood that the Jazz will face the top-seeded Spurs, though Utah could jump up to the seventh seed if they win their season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets lose out. That seems a bit like narrative-seeking, though.
Remember, last year's Grizz had split the season series with San Antonio (including one overtime loss) and faced a Spurs team with a compromised Manu Ginobili, who injured himself in the final game of the regular season. This year's Jazz lost three of four to San Antonio, including two double-digit defeats, and after early season injuries, coach Gregg Popovich is taking care to get Ginobili into the second season healthy and ready to contribute for what might be this Spurs unit's final postseason run.
While Jefferson-on-Tim Duncan is likely a win for the Jazz at this stage of the game — seriously, Jefferson's been great, and remember, Duncan's just turned 36 — Millsap has struggled against San Antonio this year (just 17 of 43 from the floor, with seven turnovers in their last two meetings) and I'd bet on the Spurs' crafty bigs and guards being able to use post-ups and penetration to turn back the clock a bit on Favors' foul rate (which plummeted from 5.8 per 36 minutes as a rookie to 3.8-per-36 this year) and curtail his impact on the defensive end. On top of that, if the Jazz get to No. 7, they'll face the Oklahoma City Thunder, against whom they dropped two of three this year and against whom the "big lineup" would seem to present a major defensive liability — asking Millsap to check Kevin Durant — that you'd figure would significantly mitigate the offensive benefits it'd create.
Utah's had an amazing season, outstripping expectations, bringing renewed and legitimate excitement to its fan base, and closing the season by playing a sharp, disciplined and relentless brand of ball that has made them a postseason team. They've even found a combination that makes them extremely interesting. Does it make them an upset threat against the West's upper-crust teams, though? I'll believe it when I see it. (And probably love being proved wrong.)