NBA 1st Round Preview: San Antonio-Utah

San Antonio and Utah are on the opposite ends of the NBA’s Western Conference bracket, but each come into the playoffs on a roll. The Spurs have won nine straight coming into Thursday night’s meaningless game against Golden State and passed Oklahoma City for the top seed in the West. Utah, after falling three games below .500 at the end of February, found their footing and delivered a four-game win streak as a finishing spurt, including an overtime win over Dallas and a clutch win over Phoenix this week that nailed down the last playoff spot. Now the Spurs and Jazz are dance partners in the 1-8 spot of the West playoffs, and TheSportsNotebook previews the matchup…

No team in the NBA has the depth of San Antonio and its why head coach Gregg Popovich could give consistent rest to his veteran starters Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, and allow shooting guard Manu Ginobli to get healthy. Names like Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Danny Green, Richard Jefferson, Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair aren’t household names. With the exception of Jackson, none are double-digit scorers. None is notable as a rebounder. What all them are is consistent, chipping in 7-8 points per game, grabbing a few rebounds and helping their coach create a whole that’s much greater than the sum of the parts.

Depth is all well and good in a compressed 66-game schedule and even over the course of two-month NBA playoff marathon, but big moments belong to stars in this game. Duncan is still steady at age 36, averaging 15 points/9 rebounds. Parker drives an offense that plays at one of the faster paces in the league and scores 18 points, while dishing eight assists. Ginobli, as long as he’s healthy is a lights-out shooter inside the three-point line and solid behind the line. Individually, the Spurs have every piece in the puzzle. Collectively, they’re the best in the league in offensive efficiency (points adjusted for tempo), they’re above average on defense and a good rebounding team. And they’re well-coached. And they have a star who’s the legend of the post-Shaq Laker dynasty. Is there any reason to give Utah even a longshot chance in this series?

The answer to that question is no, not much. If a team is going to beat San Antonio they’re going to have to be healthy and play solid defense when they are. Utah is neither. The small forward spot is nicked up with C.J. Miles out and Josh Howard battling knee problems. The Jazz have a nice interior combo with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. The duo has good shotblocking skills and combines for a 36/19 stat line each night. But in the backcourt, as much as TheSportsNotebook likes to give the benefit of the doubt to former Wisconsin basketball players, point guard Devin Harris is not a championship-quality point guard. Gordon Hayward may get there as the two-guard, but the former Butler star isn’t there yet. It’s going to take championship-level basketball to win a series with San Antonio and there is absolutely no way Utah can do that four times.  The only way they’ll even win one game is if Popovich decides to pace his veterans after they get out to a commanding lead in the series. I’ll call it Spurs in five, but if the head coach is hungry, this one can be easily finished in four.