Offensive rating: Spurs – 106.5 (2nd), Jazz – 102.9 (9th)
Defensive rating: Spurs – 101.4 (13th), Jazz – 103.7 (23rd)
Pace: Spurs – 94.5 (8th), Jazz – 94.3 (12th)
Time: 6 p.m
Radio: WOAI-AM 1200, KCOR-AM 1350
Three things to watch.
Al Jefferson. Al Jefferson has absolutely destroyed the Spurs this year. On Friday, the Warriors got a brief taste of Jefferson’s ethereal post game. In 39 minutes and nine seconds of play, Jefferson posted 30 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks on 13-of-18 shooting (72.2 percent). His plus-22 led the team. When Jefferson is able to get favorable post position down low, his specialty shots reside predominately in the left block, his progress is already too tough to impede and his arsenal of post moves don’t make it any easier for the defense.
Yet, Jefferson has been a huge deterrent to an already below-average defensive team (23rd in defensive efficiency). In just about every conceivable lineup containing Jefferson, the Jazz give upwards of 112.4 points per 100 possessions, which, for context’s sake, is five points worse than the Charlotte Bobcats. Because of his defensive deficiency, Jefferson is forced to play all his minutes at the 5, rather than the seemingly more suitable 4. His poor foot speed makes it damn near impossible for him to guard the best stretch 4s in the league — guys like Matt Bonner or athletic specimens like Blake Griffin. Even though his block totals look impressive — and they are — that doesn’t fully capture his defensive ability.
The one thing Jefferson does have going for him — at least defensively — is his elite defensive rebounding rate (seventh among centers). His defensive rebounding allows Utah to decrease their opponents extra possessions which, given the Jazz’ propensity to grab offensive rebounds and create turnovers, is actually quite valuable.
The fact remains that Jefferson — his 23.6 PER puts him second behind Dwight Howard among centers — is still pretty important to this Jazz team. Offensively, his deft touch at the rim and surprising capability to knock down the long 2 give Utah more than enough reasons to play him 33.7 minutes per game.
So why did I write 300+ words on Jefferson? Well, in addition to his impressive game on Friday, he strained two abdominals and he’s deemed questionable for tonight’s game. No Jefferson would make a much easier day for Tim Duncan.
3-pointers. There can’t be another matchup between two teams that are total polar opposites offensively. Utah’s offensive attack hinges on points in the paint rather than the perimeter which is actually a pretty good sign considering they are an awful perimeter shooting team. The Spurs, on the other hand, have some of the best assortment of shooters in the league and, sans DeJuan Blair, Duncan and Tiago Splitter, everybody on the team can conceivably step back and knock down the open 3-pointer when necessary. In both Spurs two victories over the Jazz, they made 10 3-pointers. Conversely, Utah made five total. Because of Utah’s deficient shooting they were outscored by 45 points, points that are too hard to make up when you are playing an elite team like the Spurs. It was enough to offset their advantages down low which I’ll get to …
Shots inside of nine feet. … Right now. Utah was able to withstand the Spurs’ onslaught of 3-pointers because of the multitude of shots they took inside of nine feet which are closer and, therefore, are more likely to go into the basket (advanced analysis!). In two games, Utah took 80 of these shots, compared to 65 for San Antonio, and made them 65.2 percent of the time. The Spurs couldn’t match that level of efficiency, making 43.1 percent. So, while the Jazz were outscored by 45 from the perimeter they managed to outscore the Spurs by 34 points from inside nine feet — which, even so, is still not enough to cover for their poor shooting. San Antonio has gotten better at scoring inside the paint since then; they’ve outscored four of their last five opponents in the paint.
Final verdict. Spurs by eight. Because of the uncertainty of Jefferson’s availability, I just split the difference (nine points if Jefferson is out; seven if he’s healthy). Utah has made quite an unexpected push into the Western Conference playoff picture but the Spurs are good. Real good.