Spurs' swagger shows in rout of Jazz
SAN ANTONIO -- Two games into the playoffs, not much has changed down here in South Texas. The San Antonio Spurs are still winning games with ease, still getting plenty of rest for their old reliables along the way, still barely out of regular-season gear.
Two games into the most lopsided series going, with the shell-shocked Utah Jazz seemingly incapable of making the Spurs shift into something more strenuous, one-liners from West's No. 1 seeds have provided more entertainment than the actual basketball.
Example? When it was suggested to Stephen Jackson that he's a two-time NBA Coach of the Year good-luck charm for Gregg Popovich, Jackson shot back with a broad smile, clearly proud of the line: "I told Pop that. If you can coach me, you win automatically."
Another example: Any of the dozens of cracks circulating in the Twitterverse on Wednesday night, after the Spurs dialed up some vintage team D to twin with its increasingly diverse offense, wondering aloud about whether Popovich would even bother to make Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili travel for Saturday's Game 3 in Salt Lake City. Such was the feeling of inevitability in the building about the series outcome after the Spurs dialed up some vintage team D to twin with its increasingly diverse offense to inflict a 114-83 spanking.
Rest assured that Duncan, Ginobili and Parker will be there Saturday night, because this really is the postseason, in spite of the all the evidence to the contrary in Game 2 at the AT&T Center. Yet it's already clear, even at a mere 2-0 in this first-round matchup, that Pop's biggest challenges from here will be guarding against a Memphis-style letdown and making sure his stars don't lose some conditioning after what amounts to a virtual night off.
If the Spurs stay plugged in? Utah can't keep up. At either end.
The closest thing to a moment of concern for the Spurs unfolded in the third quarter, with the lead already into the 30s, when the TNT microphones caught Parker begging Popovich to let him stay in through the end of the period in what the Frenchman later described as a plea "to keep playing to stay in shape." Pop -- shocker -- ultimately won that argument and then had the distinct pleasure of seeing the focus shift quickly away from the Coach of the Year trophy he reluctantly accepted in a pregame ceremony with Duncan and Spurs legend David Robinson and onto the juggernaut that cruised to a seemingly iron-clad series lead. A lead achieved, furthermore, with neither Parker nor Duncan logging more than 28 minutes ... and with Ginobili required for just 19 minutes.
The peerless ball movement and total trust the Spurs are known for put the unheralded twosome of free-agent fairy tale Danny Green and rookie Kawhi Leonard in position to sink three 3-pointers each and finish with 18 and 17 points, respectively. (That's the same Green, incidentally, of whom Popovich admitted earlier this week "we weren't even sure he'd make our team.") Throw in all the damage Parker did inside, either scoring or distributing in ringing up 18 points and nine assists despite the short shift, and it's little wonder San Antonio has a ridiculous points-in-the-paint advantage of 120-80 for the series in what was supposed to be Utah's No. 1 strength.
That said ...
The demoralizing effect of San Antonio's throwback defensive effort was even more significant. The Spurs remain vulnerable to the sort of size possessed by the Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers, especially when they go to their bench, but their Duncan-led coverages have completely flummoxed Jazz center Al Jefferson, who's universally regarded as one of the league's finest low-post scorers.
Jefferson managed just 10 points and four rebounds in a nightmarish 30 minutes, after a meaningless 16 points and nine rebounds in Game 1, with the added downer of knowing that San Antonio reeled off a game-changing 20 straight points in the second quarter after Jazz coach Ty Corbin put him in for Derrick Favors. He admitted at his locker late Wednesday that the Spurs' fast-changing looks and Duncan's veteran know-how have him overthinking things.
"Embarrassing," Jefferson said, presumably not even aware that Utah's 28 points at halftime (on 23.4 percent shooting) accounted for the worst playoff half in franchise history apart from the 96-54 disaster against Chicago in Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Good luck, furthermore, convincing Big Al that Team Duncan is an offense-first outfit these days and can't lock up opponents like it used to.
"They're the San Antonio Spurs," Jefferson said. "Regardless of how many points they score, they're still known for their defense."
The Jazz are the worst road team in the playoffs (11-24 counting these two losses) and simply don't have the perimeter shooters needed to loosen things up for their go-to guy, so Jefferson -- to make this a series -- is going to have to find a different way to get going on the block to counter the vigor with which San Antonio is attacking him at the other end. The Jazz also knew going in that the Devin Harris whose speed and defensive determination so bothered Parker in 2006 -- when Dallas won a Game 7 in San Antonio -- was a different guy compared to the Devin Harris we see in 2012. But they undoubtedly expected more from Big Al, given how reliable he was in leading Utah's April rush to claim the West's No. 8 seed.
And how hungry Jefferson looked when it sank in that he'd be headed to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season in 2004-05.
Corbin has some questions to answer, too, after playing the brutish Favors for just 21 minutes in Game 2, refusing to use the gritty Raja Bell at all when it looked like Utah could have used a battle-tested vet of its own and choosing not to give the Paul Millsap-Jefferson-Favors frontcourt more of a look. But let's face it: Hurting Utah's cause as much as anything, on top of the experience shortfall that made its Game 2 switch from purple to green unis so fitting, is the fact that the Jazz are up against a team in a groove like no other.
As much as the Spurs tried to insist throughout the regular season that seedings don't matter to them, they're obviously loving the way things played out. With the Grizzlies and Clippers beating each other up and Oklahoma City forced to deal with the defending champs from Dallas just for the right to advance to Round 2 and a likely showdown with the Lakers, San Antonio couldn't ask for more.
"I don't know if anybody's saying we're the favorite," Duncan said between games this week. "I think we have a chance. I don't think we're ever the favorite in anything."
From the other side of a matchup Duncan's winning handily just a week removed from his 36th birthday, Jefferson, not surprisingly, has a different view. He says the Spurs, for all their humility and self-deprecating humor, aren't just dead serious when the ball goes up. He says the Spurs have an unmistakable swagger now.
"And they should," Jefferson said.