Two weeks ago, this would have felt like a San Antonio walkover. The Spurs have destroyed the league of late, outscoring opponents by nearly 16 points per 100 possessions -- an unthinkable number -- over their last 20 games and generally peaking at the right time. The Jazz have been a nice story, but they are the worst defensive team among all playoff clubs, precisely the kind of slow-footed group the Spurs slice apart with fast-moving pick-and-rolls, quick passes and gobs of three-pointers. The Spurs scored well and rained threes in taking three of four from the Jazz, and their only loss came in a late-season game in which Gregg Popovich rested Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
But the Jazz, almost by accident, appear to have found lightning in a bottle with a super-big lineup that has transformed their defense in limited minutes. Suddenly, they look like a team that could present the same size issues Memphis used to upset the Spurs last season.
The Spurs' bigs vs. the Jazz's bigs. The Spurs have two long and tall post defenders in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, but they rarely play them together. Popovich prefers to use Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair and Boris Diaw as power forwards who can spread the floor (Bonner) or work as facilitators. Those three look the part of shaky post defenders, and few teams work from the post as often as the bulky Jazz. But the Spurs defended the post well in the regular season, using their wing players to clog passing lanes and dart down toward post players in order to confuse them; Paul Millsap isn't a back-to-the-basket bully in the style of Zach Randolph, and he didn't score a single basket via a post-up play in the teams' first three meetings, per Synergy Sports (he was 11-32 from the floor in those three games). Bonner held his own against Millsap, Utah's finest all-around player.
In other words, while the Jazz are a very good post game, they don't have two behemoths on the level of the Randolph/Marc Gasol combination that undid San Antonio last season. That, combined with Utah's shaky defense, would appear to make the Spurs bigger favorites here than they were against Memphis.
Jazz: Their big lineup. Tyrone Corbin has only played Al Jefferson, Millsap and Derrick Favors together for 113 minutes this season, and most of those minutes came down the stretch, when injuries to several underperforming wing players forced Corbin's hand. But this trio has destroyed teams in those 113 minutes. Utah has scored 111 points per 100 possessions in that time and held opponents to a miniscule 82.3 points per 100 possessions. Both numbers would lead the league by a long shot.
Using Millsap at small forward makes Utah slower, and that could be a death sentence against San Antonio's fast side-to-side attack. But it also makes Utah longer, capable of getting into passing lanes and blocking shots. Will Corbin use it extensively in this series?
Spurs: Matt Bonner. The Spurs generally score much more efficiently when he's on the floor, dragging his defender out of the paint, and the trend was even more extreme against Utah; the Spurs struggled offensively against the Jazz when Bonner sat, per NBA.com. Playing him at least 15 to 20 minutes per game would appear essential.
A sweep prediction would have been in order two weeks ago, but Utah may well be a different team now -- provided Corbin plays to the strengths of his roster. Still, this is not the Spurs team that tripped up last postseason. Ginobili is healthy, Duncan looks spry, the bench is deeper, the system more polished. It's unclear how often Corbin will play his best lineups, and if any team is equipped to attack those units, it's the Spurs. Spurs in five.