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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Utah Jazz

The Spurs are hosting a team that followed a different rebuilding path but is still trying to find its way.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs disappointed those hoping their win against the Lakers would be a turning point in the season by continuing to make the same mistakes en route to a four-game losing streak. That said, they did face good teams in that stretch that were either trying to contend or had a veteran core. Their opponent on Tuesday is closer to where San Antonio is in its rebuilding process.

The Jazz decided to blow things up the same summer the Spurs did, but they had better players and received more talented guys back in their trades. Instead of shopping them, they kept them and saw Lauri Markkanen turn into an All-Star and Collin Sexton and Walker Kessler into solid young contributors. The issue was that by keeping some of their older core with the new one they couldn’t bottom out for top talent. As a result, they are better than a team like San Antonio but lacking that centerpiece.

The two opponents picked different paths in their rebuild. Neither is wrong. To Spurs fans who’ve been suffering through a second terrible season in a row the competent mediocrity of Utah might seem as appealing as the planned awfulness of San Antonio might be to Jazz fans. This matchup could allow both team’s fanbases a closer look at how things would have worked out for their side on an alternate timeline.

San Antonio Spurs (4-24) vs. Utah Jazz (12-18)

December 26, 2023 | 7 PM CT

Watch: Bally | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: Charles Bassey – Out (left ACL,), Victor Wembanyama - Questionable (ankle), Zach Collins – Probable (knee), Charles Bediako – Out (G League,) Dominick Barlow – Questionable (G League,) David Duke Jr. – Out (G League,)

Jazz Injuries: Josh Christopher - Out (G League), Johnny Juzang - Out (G League), Micah Potter - Out (G League)

What to watch for

Keldon Johnson, sixth man?

Gregg Popovich made a big lineup change against the Mavericks. Keldon Johnson came off the bench as Julian Champagnie took his spot in the starting lineup. At first, it seemed like it was just a situation in which an injury limited a starter and Pop chose caution, but Johnson played 24 minutes in a blowout and was as active as ever on the floor. Journalists asked the coach after the game about the switch and he responded that It was just “what they wanted to do.” SAEN’s Tom Osborne asked Julian Champagnie in the lead-up to the matchup against the Jazz if he was starting again and the young wing said “I think so,” which suggests the adjustment might remain in place.

Devin Vassell came off the bench for a handful of games after having some small injury issues and Pop might be doing the same with Johnson, so it might not be smart to read too much into it. Still, it’s an interesting development that could provide some insights into which lineups work and whether Johnson can carry the offense of the second unit. He wasn’t particularly efficient against the Mavericks, but no one was. His absence from the starting lineup might have helped Jeremy Sochan find his place on offense, but Victor Wembanyama also missed that last matchup, so things will be different on Tuesday. It’s worth keeping an eye on whether Keldon starts or comes off the bench and how he does.

The Spurs need to protect the defensive glass

The Jazz will have their full team available after having several absences against the Pistons and a few against the Raptors. In their last game in Toronto, their starting lineup featured Kelly Olynyk at center with John Collins at power forward and Lauri Markkanen at small forward. Kessler came off the bench to complete their big-man rotation. That is a huge starting frontcourt and a quality traditional big in their second unit. With the Spurs switching to starting just one big, the visitors will have a big size advantage in their favor, which they could use in the offensive board to get extra possessions.

The Jazz are elite offensive rebounders, ranking first in the league in offensive rebound percentage and second in second-chance points per game. Kessler is an absolute force off the bench on the glass, so Zach Collins, if he suits up, will have his hands full trying to keep him from collecting misses. Markkanen and Collins also both rank in the top 50 in offensive rebounds per game. The Spurs rank in the top 10 in defensive rebound percentage but are 18th this season in opponent second-chance points allowed with almost 15 per game, so they are susceptible to good rebounding bigs. The battle on the boards, especially with Collins and Wembanyama dinged up, could be the defining factor in this game.

For the Jazz fans’ perspective, visit SLC Dunk.

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