Spurs Silence Jazz, Advance to the NBA FinalsThe San Antonio Spurs routed the Utah Jazz 109-84, winning the Western Conference Finals 4-1 and reaching the NBA Finals for the fourth time in the Tim Duncan era. As soon as the game began it became apparent that only two words would be needed to describe Utah: not ready. The Spurs simply overwhelmed the Jazz mentally and physically, taking a huge first quarter lead and never looking back. At the 7:52 mark of the first quarter, the Spurs were already up 12-4. Barely five minutes later, the Spurs had pushed that margin to 30-11 and ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy was quoting Yogi Berra's famous quip about it "getting late early." NBA teams generally make at least one run, particularly if they fall behind early, but the Jazz never got closer than 16 points the rest of the way. No Spur played more than 30 minutes and Mike Breen, Van Gundy and Mark Jackson spent the second half grasping at straws for filler material to talk about during one of the longest garbage time segments that has probably ever been seen this late in the playoffs. Duncan had 21 points and seven rebounds in just 29 minutes. Tony Parker tied Duncan with a game-high 21 points, adding five rebounds and five assists. This game is a great example of the significance of point differential and also how individual statistics can be deceptive. Some people dismiss point differential as a measure of a team's strength because winning teams obviously will always have a positive differential but they fail to understand that a large differential accumulated over the course of a season is an indicator of dominance. Of course, one game is a very small sample size and the Jazz recently blew out the Spurs but a 4-1 series victory capped off by a 25 point win is pretty convincing any way that you cut it--and that leads right into how individual statistics must be placed into context by actually watching the games and seeing what transpired. A lot of NBA players could go out and get 21 points and seven rebounds--but Duncan did that work in just 29 minutes against a very good team and it was apparent that if the Spurs needed him to get 30 or 40 points that would not have been a problem. In other words, his statistics for this game do not really reflect his overall impact or skill level. Before Game Five, one of the ESPN talking heads--I think that it was Breen--said something to the effect that Utah's Deron Williams has been the best player on the court during this series, citing his gaudy scoring and assists numbers. It is certainly possible to be the best player on the court even though your team won just one game in a series--Michael Jordan did that several times early in his career and Kobe Bryant did it this year--but only if you are having an impact at both ends of the court and the other team has to go to great lengths to contain you. Jordan and Bryant were swarmed by defenders (and put up big numbers anyway). Deron Williams is a promising young player who certainly had some good moments versus the Spurs but the best player on the court during this series was unquestionably Duncan; he patrolled the paint on defense and required a lot of attention to stop his offense, which led to open shots for his teammates. The double-teaming brought down his individual numbers in some games and sitting out a big portion of the Game Five blowout limited his numbers some more but if you watched the series with any understanding of basketball then you knew that Duncan was the best player.
No one from Utah had a particularly strong game. Andrei Kirilenko led the Jazz with just 13 points, shooting 4-11 from the field. Carlos Boozer shot 3-10 for his nine points, though he did have 12 rebounds and four assists. Williams, who recently fought off a stomach ailment and was greatly limited by a foot injury, had 11 points and two assists and was less than pleased by his team's effort: "There were some guys that were already on vacation. Point-blank. On vacation. A long time ago." Utah Coach Jerry Sloan used different words to communicate essentially the same message: "They came at us really hard. They destroyed our will to want to play. That was the whole thing. We abandoned our offense right away. And we never could get back into it the rest of the night. They put us where they wanted us all night long." Early in the second quarter, San Antonio led 44-24 and Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Michael Finley had combined to score 36 points on 14-19 field goal shooting. This is what the Spurs do when Tim Duncan is healthy: they methodically, systematically wear teams down. That is why I picked the Spurs to win the championship in my playoff preview; that is why way too much was made of the suspensions that happened in the previous round versus the Suns--not just because Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were the only two knuckleheads to violate a no tolerance rule that every NBA player knows but because the Spurs wear teams down and take over series in Games Five and Six (if the series makes it to six games). The Spurs beat the small-lineup Suns in Game Five as Steve Nash flamed out down the stretch (which has received nothing like the attention that has been heaped on LeBron James' pass/shoot decisions versus Detroit) and then they beat the Suns in Game Six even though Stoudemire had a big scoring night. The only team that consistently beat the Spurs in the playoffs in the Duncan era when Duncan was at full strength was the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, who swept the Spurs in the 2001 Western Conference Finals, beat them 4-1 in the second round in 2002, lost to them 4-2 in the second round in 2003 (a season scuttled by O'Neal waiting to have toe surgery, which ultimately cost the Lakers homecourt advantage) and then beat them 4-2 in the second round in 2004. In each of those years, the winner of the Lakers-Spurs series made it to the NBA Finals and from 2001-2003 that team won the championship.
The Spurs' only other playoff losses since Duncan's rookie year (1997-98) are to the Utah Jazz (1998; John Stockton and Karl Malone's second and last NBA Finals run), Phoenix Suns (2000; Duncan did not play due to injury) and Dallas Mavericks (2006; Duncan was limited by plantar fasciitis); Duncan led the Spurs to championships in 1999, 2003 and 2005, winning the Finals MVP each time. Now the Spurs get to rest for a week while Cleveland and Detroit battle for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. San Antonio will have homecourt advantage against either team.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:26 AM