With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.
Al Jefferson and the Jazz gave San Antonio everything they could handle, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid elimination by the top-seeded Spurs thanks to Manu Ginobili’s breakout performance on the offensive end. Utah fought hard to get the Game 4 win at home and put together a late rally, but the Spurs kept their distance and finished their sweep of the Jazz with an 87-81 victory.
Manu Ginobili, who had been virtually non-existent in the scoring column through San Antonio’s first three playoff games, finally had a productive offensive night, leading the Spurs with 17 points. The Jazz stayed in the game due to Al Jefferson and Devin Harris, but also because Tony Parker and Tim Duncan had poor shooting nights, finishing a combined 8-for-24. In fact, San Antonio’s starting five all struggled from the field, but their bench picked up the slack, outscoring Utah’s bench 57-10. Jefferson had 26 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Jazz while Devin Harris chipped in 19 points and seven assists. Derrick Favors, who moved into the starting lineup, had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Paul Millsap helped take care of the boards with 19 rebounds, but could only put up 10 points on the offensive end.
It was San Antonio’s balance that overwhelmed the Jazz in Game 4, as Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal all reached double digits in scoring off the bench. The timing of Ginobili’s offensive burst was impeccable, as he hit consecutive 3-pointers to silence Utah’s rowdy crowd after the Jazz had cut the lead to three in the third quarter. From there the Spurs built up at 21-point lead that proved to be insurmountable despite Utah’s late rally. But the Jazz were extremely close to extending the series and sending it back to San Antonio for Game 5 behind that late run, putting themselves in position to win by doing almost everything they needed to. They outrebounded the Spurs 57-43. They only committed 12 turnovers. And they had eight blocks compared to San Antonio’s four. But in the end, three major factor prevented them from coming out on top.
First of all, they missed nine free throws. If you want to unseat the top seed in the West, you need to take advantage of free points when you have the chance. Second, they got absolutely nothing out of Gordon Hayward, who basically disappeared from this series after Game 1. Hayward made the Jazz a potentially dangerous matchup entering the postseason, but he had zero points on 0-of-7 shooting in an elimination game. And speaking of poor shooting, the Jazz’s third blunder was failing to make a single 3-pointer at home in Game 4, finishing 0-for-13 from downtown. Utah has struggled with their 3-point shooting all season, but this area really hurt them as San Antonio shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 10 of their 22 attempts. So while Utah was able to exploit the Spurs down low, their inability to convert from long range prevented them from getting a win.
Looking ahead, the Spurs will face either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. At this point, LAC has a 3-1 series lead and will likely be San Antonio’s next opponent. If the Clippers advance, the key matchups will be obviously be Tony Parker against Chris Paul and Tim Duncan against Blake Griffin, but the series will ultimately come down to the two benches. The Spurs have a clear advantage in their bench production over the majority of the league, but if LA can get something out of their reserves and Paul and Griffin outplay Parker and Duncan (which isn’t out of the question), it could be a close series. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies somehow come back from a 3-1 deficit and advance to the next round, the Spurs should beat them pretty handily. This isn’t the same dangerous Memphis squad as last year, Zach Randolph is still up and down, the Grizzlies are having problems getting anything out of their bench and San Antonio will want revenge for last year’s upset. Fortunately, the Clippers should advance barring a complete meltdown over the next three possible games, so we should be treated to a high-octane second round matchup between the top-seeded, experienced Spurs and the dangerous, entertaining Clippers.
Devin Harris and Al Jefferson finally came to play for the Jazz, but Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs still got the win and increased their series lead to 3-0 with a 102-90 win in Utah yesterday. Parker took over in the fourth quarter and finished off a desperate Utah side that was down by only five with about eight minutes to play. The Utah crowd was looking for any signs of hope in their matchup with the number one seed in the West, but Parker and the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final quarter dispelled any hope the Jazz had in staying competitive in the series.
Parker had 27 points, Tim Duncan had 17 and Daniel Green pitched in 14 while Stephen Jackson contributed 13 off the bench. Tiago Splitter had 10 points and 8 rebounds after missing Game 2 with a bruised wrist. Al Jefferson finally had a great game with 21 points and 11 rebounds, but Paul Millsap had another poor offensive outing with just nine points. Devin Harris also had a much better offensive night with 21 points and five assists, but Gordon Hayward finished with only four points. Going up against an offensive juggernaut like the Spurs, the Jazz needed to be able to score in bunches to stay competitive, which is why Hayward and Millsap’s performances were especially devastating. Now San Antonio will likely get the sweep unless we see a near-perfect game from Utah’s starters, and if the Jazz do get a Game 4 win at home, Popovich and company will finish them off in Game 5 in San Antonio.
What is especially concerning for other contending teams in the West is that the Spurs have been steamrolling opponents and Manu Ginobili hasn’t even had a significant impact on the offensive end yet. Ginobili had six points but he also had 10 assists, which shows that he doesn’t need to score to be happy. As long as he’s contributing and helping his team win, he’s good to go. The thought of a team full of role players all satisfied with their assignments that plays well together and is coached by Gregg Popovich is a pretty intimidating concept, and Ginobili’s lack of scoring is just one example of that. Popovich’s coaching was also on fully display, including a beautifully drawn-up play right before halftime that ended in a Matt Bonner 3-pointer, giving the Spurs the lead and effectively crushing any momentum the Jazz might have had going into the half with a lead.
Jazz fans can only be so upset about the possibility of being swept in the first round. This is a young team with a promising future that had the unlucky task of facing the top team in the West right off the bat. Jefferson, Millsap, Harris and Hayward are a decent core that needs to learn how to show up night in and night out, but it’s a start. Utah will also need to build up their supporting cast to get more out of their bench in the future (even with Derrick Favors and Alec Burks combining for 26 points in Game 3). Utah hasn’t played extremely well in the series, but they need some time to develop before people start taking them seriously. But even though the chance of being swept by this impressive Spurs team is pretty good right now, Utah fans can look forward to a pretty optimistic future.