The 66-game regular season, mercifully, is over. The NBA jam-packed 66 games into a space where 50 usually went, and the result was a strange five-month run that had us talking about rested legs and oddball rotations more than we spoke of learning and growing and all that typically mindful stuff that comes to our heads when discussing the NBA. The playoffs start on Saturday, though, and the brains behind Ball Don't Lie are ready to break down the first-round matchups.
We continue with the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz.
From your pal, Kelly Dwyer
Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch, and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed, and mindful of what town they're in.
You're going to feel better now. Your pal insists on it.
It's good the Utah Jazz made the playoffs because though they're rebuilding and working through rotations to see which parts fit with each other as they collect assets, a team like the Jazz could really use the local buzz that comes from making the postseason after missing out in 2011. Not only did the team take to the lottery last year after entering the campaign with high hopes following the replacement of Carlos Boozer with Al Jefferson, but the group lost its long-time coach Jerry Sloan and would-be franchise savior Deron Williams in the process.
So it's happy fun time in Utah again, where the fans of a darn good team could watch their boys play into May, as they got to do for decades as Stockton and Malone morphed into Deron and Carlos. Al Jefferson will get to make his first trip to the postseason since a brief stint with the Boston Celtics in 2005, and Devin Harris will get to push the ball in a playoff setting after missing out in the years since Dallas dealt him away. And Tyrone Corbin will get to introduce himself as a head coach on the national stage. These are good things for good people.
It's probably not going to be enough to get past the Spurs, though we're ever mindful of the parity that runs rampant in that fantastic Western Conference. San Antonio downed Utah by nearly 10 points per game in its three wins over the Jazz, and though Utah took it to the Spurs earlier this month, San Antonio was playing without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker — all resting in the wake of a regular season that we promise we won't talk too much more about.
San Antonio's offense is just too good for the Jazz, the team won't be able to stay in front of it, and Utah's loaded frontcourt just isn't the type to take down a Spurs team that sometimes struggles with size on the interior. Sure, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap might be running rings around Duncan and DeJuan Blair throughout the tilt, but the playoffs are a guard's game these days. It's OK if you thought it was a big man's game (remember, I'm here to put you in a warm place), but with the hand-checking rules and constant free-throw attempts, Parker and Ginobili and San Antonio's cast of tweener guards are just going to have their way.
This doesn't mean this series won't be competitive or fun. You're going to love watching Gordon Hayward fill in all the holes, or Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard look like he could morph into something that even Scottie Pippen would be jealous of. And a five-game series means the Spurs will only roll the ball out five times between April 27 and May 10, which is plenty of time for a team that has ably handled the divide between rest and relocating the jaw of their opponents all season.
Was that image a little too violent for you? Probably. We apologize. Your pal just wants to tell you how great these Spurs are, and congratulate the Jazz for making it back to somewhere they typically belong.
Spurs in five.
'Deep Thoughts' and Cheap Thoughts with Dan Devine
For every postseason matchup, Ball Don't Lie's resident dummy will offer a topically appropriate entry from the best-selling series of "Deep Thoughts" books written by legendary humorist Jack Handey, plus some of his own original thoughts on the playoff series. The combination will cost you literally nothing; we suggest you use the savings to purchase one of Mr. Handey's life-changing books.
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Utah Jazz
"Children need encouragement. So if a kid gets an answer right, tell him it was a lucky guess. That way, he develops a good, lucky feeling."
It'd be harsh to say that Utah took the eighth seed through luck. You don't close the season on a 16-8 run, make the final month on the league calendar your highest-scoring stretch of the season (103.7 points per game in April) and win three huge games in the season's final 12 days to put yourself in the playoffs just by random chance; the Jazz are a good, tough team, and they took their spot by force. (With some help from the total collapse of the Houston Rockets.) Relative to the playoffs, though, Utah can fairly be categorized as "children" -- Ty Corbin's group boasts the youngest likely postseason rotation of any Western Conference team, with an average age of 25.9.
Only two players, backup point guard Jamaal Tinsley and just-back-from-injury forward Josh Howard, are on the far side of 30, and five — Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and DeMarre Carroll — are 25 or under. For those young Jazzmen, the opening-round tilt against the Spurs will be their first taste of NBA playoff action; for Utah veterans like Al Jefferson (first trip since '04-'05), Tinsley ('05-'06), Devin Harris ('06-'07) and Howard ('08-'09), it'll be a return to a brand of game they've not seen in a minute. It'll be Corbin's first time running the show from the sidelines, too. So this series will be either a learning or re-learning experience for just about every member of the Jazz.
[Dan Wetzel: NBA players should want answers for union's controversy]
Unfortunately, it's likely to be a painful one, as it comes against a San Antonio team against whom Utah has struggled mightily this season. The Jazz lost three of four contests between the two squads this year, and the one win came on the tail end of a back-to-back home-and-home series between the teams, in a game that saw Gregg Popovich sit Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and still hold a lead with 3:30 left in the fourth before the Jazz pulled it out. Utah has scored about eight points per 100 possessions fewer against the Spurs than they averaged for the season, according to NBA.com's head-to-head statistical comparison tool, shooting just 42.8 percent from the field in its four games with San Antonio and 27.8 percent from 3-point land, well below its season averages.
On top of that, the Spurs seem to be heading into the postseason hitting on all cylinders. They have been killing teams recently, winning 10 straight to close the season by an average margin of 17.6 points per game. They've posted a single-game offensive rating (which measures how many points a team scores per 100 possessions) of less than 110 once in the past two weeks, in a 14-point win over the Phoenix Suns; in that game, they put up 109.1-per-100.
The Spurs are just an offensive machine right now, and Utah doesn't appear to have what it takes to slow them down — the Jazz were a bottom-1o team in defensive efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and points allowed per possession, according to MySynergySports.com. More worryingly in the Synergy numbers: Utah ranked second-to-last in defending ball handlers on the pick-and-roll, which could mean an absolute field day on penetration off high screens for Parker and Ginobili.
A healthy helping of Utah's "big lineup," which has performed brilliantly on both ends of the floor this season and especially of late, could make the lane a tough place to live for interloping guards and look to take advantage of the Spurs' thin frontcourt rotation, as the Memphis Grizzlies did a year ago. But they don't look to have the wings to shut off San Antonio's penetration, and with Popovich's squadron of able passers and sharpshooters able to spread the floor once Parker's compromised the defense, this looks like a recipe for a lot of ball movement, late closeouts, open threes and double-digit leads.
Utah might find enough answers to win a game on its home court, where the Jazz were a stellar 24-8 this season, but they won't find enough to take more than that. No good, lucky feelings developed here. Not on Pop's watch.
PREDICTION: Spurs in five.
Five Predictions for San Antonio vs. Utah, from the Sensible Eric Freeman
1. Unlike last season's upset at the hands of the Grizzlies, the Spurs will never look in danger of losing to the eighth-place Jazz.
2. Tim Duncan will have trouble dealing with the formidable Utah front line.
3. Duncan will also look perfectly capable of handling less post-oriented contenders.
4. The Jazz will win Game 3 on their tough home court and momentarily look capable of making it a series.
5. Spurs in five.
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