If this was any other No. 1 seed, observers would look at the 14-game gap in the standings, plus a 3-1 advantage with the lone loss coming when three starters sat out, and advance chalk along to the conference semifinals. Fairly or not, this year's San Antonio Spurs carry the weight of last year's opening-round flameout. As a result, expect this matchup to be scrutinized for ways the Utah Jazz can follow in the footsteps of the Memphis Grizzlies and pull off the 1-8 upset.
WHEN SAN ANTONIO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.3 possessions per 48 minutes (8th NBA)
San Antonio Offensive Rating: 113.1 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
Utah Defensive Rating: 107.9 points per 100 possessions (20th NBA)
It's no great secret that the Spurs have morphed from a defensive juggernaut to a team that wins primarily with its efficient offensive attack and strong shooting. San Antonio led the league in Offensive Rating thanks to posting the top effective field-goal percentage (.528) in the NBA by a wide margin. While they won't be confused for Seven Second or Less any time soon, the Spurs are also playing at a much faster pace. They ranked eighth in possessions per 48 minutes, up from 18th last year and 27th as recently as 2008-09.
The key is San Antonio's depth of shooting threats. Six Spurs made at least 40 three-pointers, including all five wings who saw regular action. When Matt Bonner is on the floor, opponents must respect three San Antonio shooters beyond the arc, which gives Gregg Popovich the ability to run a pick-and-roll with the floor ideally spaced for his point guard and center. Instead of running to the hoop, Spurs wings run to the three-point line in transition, leaving the middle of the court free for Tony Parker's one-man fast break and giving him options on the perimeter if the defense cuts off his attack.
San Antonio will get the occasional post score from Tim Duncan or DeJuan Blair, but most of the team's initial looks in the paint during the half-court offense are generated by penetration from Parker and Manu Ginobili. During this series, expect them to give Utah a steady diet of pick-and-rolls. Per mySynergySports.com, the Spurs were more efficient in pick-and-roll than any team in the league at 0.97 points per play, and pick-and-roll actions were also responsible for a lot of spot-up opportunities, where San Antonio ranked second at 1.02 points per play.
This is especially problematic for the Jazz because Al Jefferson's weakness is defending the pick-and-roll. Jefferson isn't quick enough defensively to contain the ballhandler and get back to his man. Blair and Tiago Splitter took full advantage, combining to average 25.3 points and shoot nearly 64 percent against Utah during the regular season.
The obvious adjustment for Tyrone Corbin is to make use of the big lineup that was so successful for the Jazz down the stretch. With Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors flanking Jefferson, Utah allowed just 83.6 points per 100 possessions per BasketballValue.com, which is off the charts. Favors is far more capable of shutting down the pick-and-roll, which makes the big unit ideal for containing teams with one strong pick-and-roll option. Where San Antonio could cause trouble for this group is by putting multiple pick-and-roll threats on the floor, meaning the Spurs can always attack Jefferson. If Favors is on Duncan, that still leaves Jefferson to deal with Blair, Splitter, or the pick-and-pop threat provided by Matt Bonner.
Still, the big lineup looks like Corbin's best option because of the other benefits it provides, including completely taking away second chances. Per data provided by NBA.com/Stats, opponents have rebounded just 19.4 percent of their own misses against the Favors/Jefferson/Millsap combination. The group has also done a good job providing help because of its combination of size and athleticism. Popovich could exploit it by going small with Stephen Jackson at small forward to try to beat Millsap off the dribble, but that would present issues at the other end of the floor.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL
Pace: 90.1 possessions per 48 minutes (13th NBA)
Utah Offensive Rating: 108.1 points per 100 possessions (7th NBA)
San Antonio Defensive Rating: 104.8 points per 100 possessions (11th NBA)
Like the Spurs, the Jazz has gone against its established history on offense this season. Utah's overall performance is similar to recent seasons, but the style of the offense is totally different. The Jazz is just 18th in the league in assists per field goal made, down from third a year ago. Lacking a strong passer at the point, Utah has played primarily through Jefferson and Millsap in the post. The frontcourt duo does carry on the tradition to some extent, since both players have developed into excellent passers for their position. They are particularly effective at setting each other up when they draw help defense.
Just as last year with Memphis, encountering an opponent with two post threats will be a problem for San Antonio. Splitter is more comfortable and ready to play extended minutes than he was during his rookie season, but he's nothing better than average when it comes to defending the post and struggles against bigger players. Most of the time, the Spurs have found going small and sacrificing post scores for easy opportunities at the other end more effective. That could mean a heavy dose of Blair, Bonner and even Boris Diaw in this series.
The big lineup throws another wrinkle into the matchups. That Utah has improved defensively by putting more size on the floor makes sense, but the Jazz's effectiveness on offense is counterintuitive. With Millsap, Favors and Jefferson together, Utah has averaged 116.1 points per 100 possessions--far better than lineups with Jefferson, Millsap and a traditional small forward have managed (109.5). One reason for the improvement is simply talent--Favors is more skilled than many of the Jazz's ineffective options at the three. Beyond that, Utah is crushing smaller opponents on the offensive glass. The big frontcourt has rebounded a stunning 36.4 percent of all misses, which accounts for much of its success.
This suggests that the most important aspect of stopping the Jazz's big lineup is a small forward capable of keeping Millsap off the offensive glass. Most of the opponents Utah has used the big unit against have had smaller, perimeter-type threes. The exception is New Orleans' Al-Farouq Aminu, and the Hornets were the only team to outscore the big lineup, during a home win on April 13. Kawhi Leonard has a similar defensive rebound percentage and, like Aminu, was a power forward in college. He might be the key to this series.
The other possible counter to the big lineup is a zone defense to exploit the Jazz's lack of outside shooting and provide less space for Favors, Jefferson and Millsap to operate in the paint. During late-season wins, Popovich dusted off a zone with his reserves on the floor in what could be a preview for this series. If San Antonio goes zone, rebounding will be even more important and Splitter's length may be more valuable for the Spurs defense.
Against a zone, Utah will need Gordon Hayward to come up big. The sophomore wing has been outstanding since the All-Star break, playing with confidence and showing off a versatile skill set. After struggling from beyond the arc in the first half, he has shot 42.2 percent from three-point range in the second half, per Basketball-Refernece.com. As a result, Corbin has relied on Hayward. According to NBA.com/Stats, Hayward ranked second in the NBA in minutes per game in April.
The Spurs are the better team, and this is a terrific matchup for them on offense. A month ago, the only question for the prediction would be whether the Jazz could take a game in this series. The introduction of the big lineup as a devastating weapon for Corbin alters things slightly. I've been asked whether I think the big lineup's success is gimmicky or lasting, and I generally lean toward the latter perspective because of how it puts Utah's most talented lineup on the floor. However, given more time to prepare to match up and a solid counter in Leonard, I think the Spurs can keep the big lineup from being as overwhelmingly effective as it has been. The Jazz is now perfectly capable of proving me wrong, but I see this as the trendy "gentleman's sweep."
San Antonio in 5
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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