By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Apr 27 2012 9:38AM
When the Spurs trudged off the floor last spring in Memphis, only the second time in NBA history that a No. 1 seed was defeated by a No. 8 seed in the best-of-seven era, they were beaten and beaten down. Manu Ginobili was ailing, Tim Duncan looked old and Tony Parker spent the next couple of months with his name bandied about in trade talks. So how can anyone explain them being right back atop the Western Conference heap a year later?
"A big part of that is obviously the young guys that have stepped in -- guys like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter, in his second year, has really come into his own," said Matt Bonner, the Red Rocket. "And we made some good pickups with Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, which has given us a lot of depth with this condensed schedule, let us manage minutes, and everybody's contributing."
But don't underestimate the Big Three. With Gregg Popovich doing a Coach of the Year-worthy job -- perhaps the best of his career -- Parker carried the offense through the compact 66-game schedule, Duncan played his fewest minutes ever and Ginobili is able to enter the postseason feeling fit and fresh after missing nearly half the schedule with a broken hand and a hip flexor injury.
Popovich has maximized the talents of his young players to remake the Spurs on the fly at a time when most observers thought they were in decline. Now they are the top 3-point shooting team and also have the top-rated offense in the league.
Rebounding has been an occasional weak spot (hello, Andrew Bynum and 30 boards), so the Spurs will have to take care of business against the bruising Jazz.
After nearly two decades of 50-win seasons and annual appearances in the playoffs, Utah sat out the postseason a year ago and was supposed to be in a rebuilding mode. But Ty Corbin (who replaced legendary coach Jerry Sloan) and general manager Kevin O'Connor were having none of that.
"I don't ever want to sound like, 'I told you so.' But at the beginning of the year, we talked about (this) not being a rebuilding year," O'Connor told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I thought Al (Jefferson) and Devin (Harris) and Paul (Millsap) could carry us through. And I thought the young kids could bounce back and play a little bit better than they did a year ago. ... We just felt we were better than everyone else thought we were, and it's nice to come out of that."
Mix in the work of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors and there's plenty cooking as the Jazz look into the future at the start of this new era.
1. Are the Spurs still Tim Duncan's team? Like the bass guitar, he provides the foundation. But now they dance to Tony Parker's beat.
2. Will missing 32 games hurt Manu Ginobili? On the contrary, it could have him fresher for a playoff run.
3. Who's on the spot for the Jazz? Devin Harris must at least slow down the blur that has been Parker in an MVP-worthy season.
4. Candidate for a surprise lineup change? Undersized Spurs center DeJuan Blair could give way to Tiago Splitter against a big Jazz frontline.
5. What does a Utah upset sound like? Bang! Bang! Bang! The Jazz need to hammer away on the boards.
Forget all of those old images of the plodding Spurs from the four championship seasons. Popovich has done an extreme home makeover and turned the Spurs into a bunch that wants to get out and run at every opportunity and will fire away at will from beyond the 3-point line. San Antonio is not only the top 3-point shooting team in the league, but also runs the most efficient offense in the NBA. Pop has Parker setting the tone now, sometimes as a scorer, other times as the facilitator in a lineup that has plenty of willing and capable snipers.
The Jazz challenge will be to use their size advantage up front to keep Parker from driving into the lane with impunity and to limit the Spurs to one shot on each possession (the Spurs are weak offensive rebounders).
While it's the Spurs' mantra to "pound the rock," it is the Jazz who like to get out the sledgehammer with the offensive attack behind the bulk of Jefferson, Millsap and Favors and youngster Enes Kanter off the bench. They're tough, physical, leave plenty of bruises and are not always pretty. But the Jazz have the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league and rank seventh in efficiency on the job. That said, Utah will need someone to loosen things up from the outside, a real challenge for this team that shot just 32.3 percent on 3-pointers during the season, third-worst in the league.
The Spurs will have to go to the boards by committee in order to keep themselves from getting steamrolled along the frontline. The size of the Jazz could require Pop to go big with the likes of Splitter and Diaw at times.
After all those years of toiling for lottery teams and missing out on the spotlight and the fun of the playoffs, Jefferson will be in hog heaven in the middle of the Jazz lineup any time they need a big basket.
Leonard and Green have taken turns playing key roles throughout the unusual condensed season. Leonard has a knack for being in the right place at the right time to make the right play and Green has sizzled from behind the 3-point line.
Gordon Hayward is the X-factor for the Jazz. The second-year swingman from Butler averaged 17.2 points and shot 50 percent from 3-point range in April and wasn't even the least bit distracted by the "Wet Willie" delivered by Delonte West.
The only win by the Jazz in four meetings this season came when Popovich left Duncan, Ginobili and Parker home from an April 9 trip to Salt Lake City. Count on the Big Three showing up for all games in the playoffs. So make it the Spurs in five.
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