You had to enjoy watching the Jazz fight off the Suns and the Rockets for the West’s final playoff spot. They have been playing playoff-atmosphere basketball for the better part of April, but they are about to go up against a machine of a team that Tim Duncan described as the deepest he has ever played on. That’s a mouthful right there. Here are five things to watch for in the first-round playoff series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz:
- THE EXPERIENCE FACTOR: The four members of the Jazz with the most playoff experience are Josh Howard (62 games), Paul Millsap (44), Devin Harris (38) and Jamaal Tinsley (37). That adds up to 181 games, or just five more than Spurs forward Tim Duncan has played by himself. Utah is back in the playoffs after a one-year absence and has five rotation players – rookies Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, and DeMarre Carroll, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward – who never have been to the postseason. In addition, Al Jefferson has not played in May since 2005, when he was a 20-year-old rookie with Boston. The Jazz are usually fundamentally sound, but their lack of experience makes them susceptible to playoff jitters against a pressure-tested Spurs squad.
- THE COACHING FACTOR: Experience isn’t just an issue on the court. It will be a factor on the sidelines as well. This is Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin’s first postseason, and he will be trying to match wits with perhaps the best in the business in Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who is entering his 15th straight playoffs with four championships and a 108-73 lifetime mark. Popovich is at or near the top of the profession in making in-game adjustments and drawing up late-game plays. He has a decided advantage over Corbin, who may be facing a painful lesson about experience.
- THE RED-HOT FACTOR: As the postseason begins, there is no team playing better than the Spurs, evidenced by their 38-7 record since late January – a stretch that somehow includes three double-digit winning streaks — two 11s and a 10 — and their visibly unselfish fluidity on the court. Formerly a defensive-minded team that was entirely content winning 85-80 games, San Antonio is averaging a staggering 117 points per game during its current winning streak, an unfathomable number in this grind-it-out season. It also is an impressive 16-10 when allowing 100 or more points, a scenario where few teams succeed. Yes, the Jazz also are playing well, having won five in a row to end the regular season. But no one is clicking like the Spurs.
- THE GINOBILI FACTOR: Despite their playoff excellence over the last generation, the Spurs are just 7-14 with two first-round exits in the last three postseasons, which has led many to say that their time has passed. But things may be different this time around because Manu Ginobili is healthy. Over the last three years, San Antonio is 6-9 with Ginobili in its playoff lineup and 1-5 without him. Once dubbed “El Contusion” by former teammate Brent Barry for a reckless but highly effective style that often led to injuries, Ginobili missed 31 games this season due to a broken hand, strained oblique and occasional rest, which almost may have been a blessing. He is basketball’s Derek Jeter, consumed by winning and saving his best for the biggest stage.
- THE SIZE FACTOR: One area where the Jazz appear to have an advantage over the Spurs is their size and depth at power forward and center. Only the Bulls and Lakers had a higher rebounding percentage this season than the Jazz, who start Jefferson and Millsap at the big spots – both of whom have consistent mid-range jumpers and interior passing skills in their arsenal – and back them up with the young but frighteningly long duo of the 6-10 Favors and 6-11 Kanter, who can control the paint for brief stretches. San Antonio has the 6-11 Duncan and 6-11 Tiago Splitter, but after them, its size drops off quickly. The Spurs start inconsistent 6-7 widebody DeJuan Blair on the front line and will try to counter the Jazz’s size by using Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw – who can stretch the floor with their shooting – at the 4 spot. It Utah is able to capitalize on its size advantage, it will stay in this series longer.
SHERIDAN: Spurs in 4.
HUBBARD: Spurs in 5.
HEISLER: Spurs in 6.
BERNUCCA: Spurs in 4.
HAMILTON: Spurs in 4.
PERKINS: Spurs in 5.
ZAGORIA: Spurs in 5.
PARK: Spurs in 5.
For the complete first-round NBA playoff schedule, click here.
OTHER SERIES PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS