The first three games of the playoffs have been pretty rough on the Utah Jazz. The plucky group of hardworking youngsters and thought-past-it veterans that scrapped their way to the No. 8 seed in the season's final week have found themselves blitzed and buried by a buzzsaw of a top seed in the San Antonio Spurs. Utah lost by 15 in Game 1 and 31 in Game 2 in San Antonio before coming home to Salt Lake City and getting to within five in the final frame of Game 3, only to drop a 12-point decision. The butt-kicking has been complete, professional and roster-wide on both sides. Of the 13 Spurs who have seen floor time in the series, only two (Manu Ginobili and little-used James Anderson) are shooting below 44 percent from the floor for the series; only two of 12 Jazzmen (Al Jefferson and little-used Blake Ahearn) are shooting above 44 percent.
Yep, things look grim for the Jazz, who face elimination when the two teams resume hostilities at EnergySolutions Arena for Game 4 on Monday night. They need something to rally around, a "Nobody but the guys in this locker room believe in us!"-style mantra to carry them into the game, a standard to bear as they head into battle.
Unfortunately, judging by comments made by Jefferson the day before the game, the best standard that Utah's starting center can come up with is apparently a white flag. From Jeff McDonald at the San Antonio Express-News:
Before Sunday's practice, Jefferson essentially declared the Spurs to be NBA champions-in-waiting.
"I just think we're playing against a team that is at its peak," Jefferson said. "I don't see nobody beating them."
Jefferson's comments were striking, considering Utah's series with the Spurs is still in progress.
Game 4 is tonight in Utah.
Pretty strong motivational tactic, Al. Way to give your teammates the ol' "win one for the Gipper" speech. I haven't been able to confirm reports that Jefferson followed his rousing endorsement of his team's chances by pumping his teammates up with Antony and the Johnsons in the locker room, but I'll definitely keep working my sources in the Jazz organization as soon as they peel themselves off the floor and stop crying.
On the plus side for Jazz fans, not everyone is preparing for San Antonio's victory parade — coach Tyrone Corbin and second-year swingman Gordon Hayward say they're not ready to give up. It's also possible that Jefferson was just playing mind games, trying to lull the Spurs into a false sense of security by making them feel invincible next to the puny, putrid Jazz, and then all of a sudden HE STRIKES WITH A SERIES OF JAB STEPS!
Pretty sneaky, sis, but you're going to have to get up pret-ty early in the "Man, you guys are so good" morning to get the drop on the likes of Tim Duncan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Told of Jefferson's effusive praise of San Antonio's point-producing machine, the two-time NBA MVP and reigning Coach of the Year demurred, telling the Express-News' McDonald that the Spurs have a long way to go before they even know what kind of team they can be, let alone if they're the best one out there.
Whether you think Jefferson misspoke or is really that down on his team's chances, or if Duncan and Pop really aren't sure if the Spurs are as good as Big Al seems to think they are, the reality is that they're unquestionably better than the Jazz in pretty much every area of the game right now, and it all starts with their point guard.
Despite Utah's promises to get physical with Tony Parker in an attempt to shut him down, the All-Star point guard has continued to run roughshod over them, averaging 24.3 points and 7.7 assists per game in the series, shooting 56.5 percent from the floor, turning the ball over just eight times in 104 minutes and getting to the free-throw line 24 times. With Parker pick-and-rolling Utah's bigs to death, the Spurs' draw-and-dish game has been on point, producing myriad open looks for the team's 3-point shooters (who are hitting at a 39 percent clip for the series, a number that jumps to 45.1 percent if you subtract the ice-cold Ginobili's 0-for-8 mark) and a ton of up-close changes — San Antonio has taken 92 shots at the rim over the past three games compared to 77 for Utah, and converted on 69.6 percent of them to just 49.4 percent for the Jazz, according to Hoopdata.com's shot location stats.
The Spurs are getting whatever they want offensively, and making the Jazz pay for giving it to them. Unless the Jazz can do something drastically different Monday night — rolling out their "big lineup" of Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, which performed brilliantly during the regular season but has been used sparingly this postseason, could be a start (although SI.com's Zach Lowe isn't so convinced) — it's awful likely that the Spurs once again pound Utah into submission ... which, by the sound of it, might not be all that unwelcome to some.
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