Before the series with the Jazz, I happened to say that you probably couldn't draw up a better first-round opponent for the Spurs than Utah. I'm not sure I really meant it at the time, but looking back I can see that it was one of the truest things I've said so far this year.
We just watched four games of the Spurs' greatest strength (pick and roll offense) matched against the opponent's biggest weakness (pick and roll defense). While that is definitely a recipe for success, it really does not explain the complete and utter beat-down the Spurs imparted to the Jazz in that short series, excepting the final quarter of Monday night's game.
So what do I attribute it to? Well I'm sure I'll miss a thing or two, but I'll tell you what I saw.
Missed shots: A lot of them
The Jazz had misses from the mid range. Misses on layups. Missed fadeaways. I saw plenty of all of these from Utah, and way more than you'd expect (even with the kind of defense that San Antonio was playing as they held them to .381 FG%). But more than anything else I saw a huge number of unexplained misses on put-backs.
Generally those kinds of things will even out over a few games, especially in a series between two squads playing each other over and over, but I just can't put a finger on why Utah was missing so many shots off the offensive rebounds that they were regularly getting. And I simply can't give credit to the Spurs for something that I honestly could not link to something they were doing.
Outside Shooting vs Rebounding
As much as there was an advantage for the Spurs' base offense against the Jazz's base defense in pick and rolls, there was just as much of a disparity between the two clubs' ability to score with the long ball.
The Spurs made good on 40.7% of their three pointers against Utah (nearly a point and a half above their season average of 39.4%) and took just over 20 a game. That works out to almost 25 points per game from long distance sniping. Compared to the Jazz who scored 27 points behind the arc in the entire series, or just three more than Stephen Jackson's four game total from deep. That's staggering. Can there be another playoff team who shoots so few threes?
But San Antonio's relative strength in this area was a known quantity coming into the postseason; what about Utah's in rebounding? Weren't the Jazz supposed to dominate the Spurs on the boards? Well it never really happened. While Utah did pull down nearly 7 boards a game more, it just wasn't enough to outweigh the efficient scoring the Spurs were putting up. Especially when you factor in the misses from my previous point.
All Your 50-50 Balls Are Belong To Us
One of the worst feelings I've had as a Spurs fan over the last few seasons was watching the playoffs last year as the Grizzlies seemed to beat the Spurs to every single loose ball and batted-around-rebound. I must have had nightmares though half of the summer that featured Mike Conley and Tony Allen breaking into my house and making away with all of my kids' toy balls.
Well, this year it was the exact opposite. If it wasn't Danny Green snagging a deflection, it was Kawhi Leonard getting his paws on a ball Manu knocked out of Jefferson's grasp. If it wasn't Steven Jackson saving a ball from going out of bounds, it was Tony Parker with the steal that bounced off of three different guys before Manu grabbed it and got it out for an easy layup. It was impressive, it was persistent, and I hope that it was sustainable but I'm not sure I can argue that it was. I guess only time and the next few playoff games will tell.
By far one of the most clever things I have ever seen, I witnessed doing college while viewing the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy: Part Two. Just check out this link for footage of the main character creating an impromptu firebreak. (I'll pause briefly for you to watch.) Not only is that an incredibly useful piece of information for you to have should you ever be caught in a wildfire, but it's also an excellent illustration of what happened to the Jazz's confidence, emotion, and -- well, fire. It got broken.
Sometime during this series, someone/something just burned up everything that there was to burn, and they suddenly had no fight left in them. Until game four it looked as if they were satisfied to be rolled by a team that looks primed to win it all. I know a lot has already been made of the continuous respect that Utah showed to San Antonio, so I'm not going to add anything more on that. But it did seem quite obvious that, when their backs were against the wall, there was another level of effort that, had Utah been able to access it all series long, would have made the series far more competitive.
Conclusion: the Spurs are good, but...
Hey, my history concerning the Spurs Kool-Aid is clear: I am exceedingly optimistic about this postseason. But I'm just not excited about drawing too many conclusions for the rest of the playoffs, based solely on the evidence from the four games that I just watched. While I'm certainly gratified that so many other are ready to call the Spurs favorites now, I'd be far more agreeable if they came to that conclusion by looking at their season-long achievements, and not just what's occurred over the last 192 minutes of game time.
That said, to those of you now expecting San Antonio to go all the way: I don't really care how you arrived at your conclusion. Sure, the series against Utah was really a perfect storm for the Spurs, but since they've only lost three games all year when at full strength, you could say the same about the entire season. The fact that your head is now on right is enough for me.
Bonus Random Fact
[From the Elias Sports Bureau about Game 4]
The Utah Jazz had three starters score at least 16 points; no San Antonio Spurs starter scored more than 11 points. The Jazz had three starters collect at least 10 rebounds; no Spurs starter had more than five rebounds. So what was the final score? San Antonio 87, Utah 81, as the Spurs completed a sweep of their first-round series.
Manu Ginobili came off the bench to score a team-high 17 points; among the starters, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker led with 11 points apiece. The Spurs' victory was the first in the NBA's past 591 playoff games in which no starter on the winning team scored as many as 12 points. The previous team to win a playoff game in that manner? Gregg Popovich's Spurs, of course. Back on April 30, 2005, the Spurs topped the Nuggets, 86-78, in Game 3 of a first-round series in Denver, with Duncan leading the starters with -- you guessed it -- 11 points, and Ginobili coming off the bench for a game-high 32.