6:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Spurs -8, Over/Under: 232
With only one spot left in the Playoffs to be decided, tonight’s meeting between the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz will go a long way towards influencing the fate of the former, while the latter will most likely sit back and rest comfortably knowing that their path has been set in this Regular Season Finale from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. It all comes down to this single contest for the Spurs (32-38, 11th in Western Conference), who will not only need a victory tonight, but plenty of help from the rest of their competition in order to prolong the longest postseason streak in the four major sports in this country; San Antonio has made the Playoffs in a remarkable TWENTY-TWO consecutive seasons dating back to 1998. In order to ensure that that run continues, they’ll need a loss by at least two of the following teams, the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, along with a victory over the Jazz. If that were to happen, Gregg Popovich’s charges see themselves as compete in the one-game playoff on Saturday, which will decide just who will face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the First Round next week.
So let’s focus on the part of this equation that they CAN control, which is their affair with the Jazz. In three meetings this term, the Spurs have yet to lose against them, besting them by an average margin of 8.0 Points per Game, shooting a healthy 50.0% from the field, including 37.0% from beyond the arc, and dishing out 24.3 Assists in comparison to committing just 9.0 Turnovers. Defensively, they’ve done a solid job of stymieing Utah’s attack, relegating them to 42.8% shooting from the floor, and harassing them into 15.0 Turnovers. When they last met back on August 7th, San Antonio was forced to fend off a late charge to hold onto a 119-111 victory in which they enjoyed another excellent offensive showing, netting 50.6% of their attempts overall, including 9-of-22 from downtown (40.9%), while assisting on Twenty-Seven of their Forty-Five Field Goals, with six different players finishing in double-figures. Third-year Guard, Derrick White (11.3 PTS, 45.8% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.9 BLK, 16.4 PER), led the way with Twenty-Four Points, Six Rebounds, and Four Assists, while knocking down 4-of-9 threes from the perimeter (44.4%). Young Center, Jakob Poeltl (5.6 PTS, 61.9% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.4 BLK, 19.1 PER), had his way in the Paint, totaling Nineteen Points, Ten Rebounds, and Three Blocks, taking advantage of Utah’s Frontcourt without the presence of former Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. Veteran Guard, DeMar DeRozan (22.1 PTS, 53.1% FG, 25.7% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 21.6 PER), added another Thirteen Points, while Rudy Gay (10.8 PTS, 44.6% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 1.7 AST, 15.4 PER) chipped in with Fourteen off the Bench. All in all, Popovich’s troops have handled themselves rather well since the restart, in which they were one of five teams in the Western Conference that were invited to Orlando despite residing outside of the Playoffs Field; they’ve since gone 5-2, including three straight victories, besting their opponents by an average margin of 5.4 Points per Game, shooting 48.5% from the field and 41.1% from beyond the arc, while racking up 25.9 Assists, and getting to the Free-Throw Line on 27.7 occasions netting 23.4 (84.5%).
When we last saw the Spurs, they had successfully extended said winning streak to three games with a 123-105 drubbing of the Houston Rockets, who were without a number of key contributors, including former MVP Guard, Russell Westbrook, who sat out the affair with a bruised Quadriceps. Despite being relatively close in the First Half, San Antonio’s momentum continued to build and build to the point that they led by as many as Twenty-Nine Points in the Fourth Quarter. Seven different players scored in double-figures, led by Rookie Forward, Keldon Johnson (8.4 PTS, 58.4% FG, 3.4 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 18.9 PER), who totaled career-highs of Twenty-Four Points and Eleven Rebounds, in just over twenty-five minutes of the Bench, while the aforementioned DeRozan wasn’t far behind with Twenty-Three Points, Six Rebounds, and Four Assists. The 30-Year Old has long been one of the more polarizing All-Stars over the past few years, but for all intents and purposes he appears to have settled into a nice role under the guidance of Popovich. Say what you will about his reluctance in shooting from the perimeter, but DeRozan has proven to be an excellent slasher to the rim, with a solid midrange game that is facilitated by the spacing provided by the shooting of his teammates. He’s also really rounded out his skillset, particularly as a playmaker, where he’s dished out 5.6 Assists, the second-highest figure of his career. With fellow All-Star, LaMarcus Aldridge (18.9 PTS, 49.3% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.6 BLK, 19.7 PER), out for the remainder of the campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery during the shutdown, he will need to continue to leading this young group of players, particularly if the basketball gods show them favor and their season extends beyond tonight.
Meanwhile, since it’s absolutely likely that the Jazz (43-28, 6th in Western Conference) will be resting just about everyone that can be considered a key contributor for tonight’s affair with the Spurs, we’re going to take a look back as to how they got here, and perhaps what we can expect from them in the Playoffs, where they’ll be looking to advance past the Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2007. Much was expected of this side in 2019-2020 after they stepped out of character and actually attacked the Offseason, addressing their weaknesses in Free Agency, particularly at Point Guard and on the Wing. For the first, they signed Mike Conley Jr. (14.4 PTS, 40.9% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 14.1 PER), who had spent his entire his career with the Grizzlies, and would represent a significant upgrade over his predecessor, Ricky Rubio, particularly on the defensive end of the court. For the second, they signed Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 PTS, 44.7% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.1 AST, 15.6 PER), who has been one of the most criminally underrated players in the league for years now. However, the additions have been met with mixed results for a variety of reasons, though the major one simply comes down to one thing: health. After an injury-filled end to his tenure in Memphis, it took much longer for Conley to get acclimated to his new surroundings in Salt Lake City, with Quin Snyder opting to bring him off the Bench throughout the majority of the first half of the campaign. It wasn’t until after the All-Star Break that the 32-Year Old started to see more time with the rest of the Starters, with his production, particularly his shooting, falling in line with what he’s shot throughout his career. Unfortunately, Bogdanovic went the opposite way; after providing excellent spacing and understated playmaking from the perimeter, the sharpshooting Forward broke his right wrist in practice following the lockdown, ending his first season with the franchise prematurely.
As a result, you got the sense that the Jazz simply were an incomplete version of the team that we all though that they could be, which was a legitimate competitor for an NBA Championship. Instead, they’ve worn the visage of a good, yet flawed, group that struggles to compete against the elite teams in the league. And that was before the Covid-19 Pandemic struck and shut down the Association for four months. In fact, no team has closer ties to the virus than Utah, who saw Rudy Gobert (15.1 PTS, 69.3% FG, 13.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.0 BLK, 21.7 PER), the towering pillar of their defense, become the first player in the league to test positive for it, and through his immature actions, spread it to a number of other players and staff, none more significant than first-time All-Star, Donovan Mitchell (24.2 PTS, 44.8% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.7 PER). This event reportedly led to quite the rift between the two stars, threatening to damage the chemistry of Snyder’s outfit irreparably before the restart. While both Gobert and Mitchell have said that they’ve put it behind them, the team as a whole has yet to look quite right during the restart, going 2-5 over the last seven outings, which saw them fall from Fourth in the Standings to Sixth, and up until last night even had them possibly falling to Seventh. Offensively, they’ve been terribly inconsistent, averaging 112.7 Points on just 43.8% shooting, despite knocking down a solid 36.1% of their attempts from beyond the arc. Furthermore, they’ve moved the ball well (24.4 AST), but they’ve also been one of the sloppiest when in possession, committing a miserable 17.3 Turnovers. Conley was supposed to correct these flaws, but based off the data, the Jazz don’t appear to be any better for it. However, the most surprising problem has been their regression on the defensive end. Utah has been one of the league’s premier defensive units over the previous three seasons, and this season they have seen a decline in a number of key statistics with that downward slope only becoming accelerated in the brief host of games since the restart. Even with Gobert anchoring the defense, this team has been scorched by the opposition to the tune of 117.1 Points per Game on 49.4% shooting from the floor, including 36.4% from downtown, and 24.3 Assists in comparison to 14.4 Turnovers. Those figures have only looked worse during their current three-game losing streak, in which they’ve been carved up for 125.0 Points on 51.1% shooting overall. Simply put, this is NOT what one would come to expect from a unit that features the likes of Gobert and Conley, who share four All-Defensive Team selections between them.
With their very noticeable flaws and lack of momentum, it’s difficult to see the Jazz really making any noise in the Playoffs given the circumstances that they face. This is a side that has historically benefitted from having one of the most consistently rowdy fan bases in the NBA, and they will not be able to call upon the faithful in Salt Lake City to give their opponents hell from the stands. Even their matchup in the First Round is a terrible one for them, with the Denver Nuggets holding decisive advantages over them in a multitude of areas. After getting eliminated in successive years by the Houston Rockets in rather embarrassing fashion, Utah had to have been pleased that they didn’t draw James Harden & Co for another year, but they really shouldn’t be excited to face the young Nuggets, who thus far have handled them on three occasions and counting. In three meetings, Snyder’s charges are 0-3 against the postseason date, finding it difficult to combat their size, length, and depth. One of the few teams in the league that possesses the size to negate Gobert’s presence, the Nuggets have enjoyed a sizeable Plus-5.0 advantage on the glass, while getting to the Charity Stripe far more frequently (Plus-5.7 FT), all the while harassing them on the defensive end where the Jazz have committed an average of 17.3 Turnovers. Though all three contests were decided by six points or less, it’s difficult to see how this team can make any true headway against a side who has been one of the more impressive ones since the restart, and only figures to get stronger once they welcome back a pair of Guards, Will Barton and Garry Harris, from injury. These teams last met on August 8th, where it took not one, but TWO Overtimes to conclude matters; Mitchell led the way with Thirty-Five Points, but struggled throughout on 12-of-33 shooting (36.4), including a dismal 5-of-16 from long range (31.3%). Despite catching fire as team from beyond the arc (22-of-55 3FG), outscoring Denver by Thirty-Nine Points in the process, Utah committed Twenty-Two Turnovers, which parlayed into Twenty-One Points going the other way and Nineteen Points for their counterpart, who also manhandled them in the Paint, where they owned a Plus-40 advantage.