Potential First Round Matchup: Utah Jazz
By Ian Smith
The Jazz have based their reputation on establishing a defensive presence. The only team that gives up less points per game than the Jazz is the Spurs. Expect an extremely low-scoring series if these two meet.
The Jazz thrive at Vivint Smart Home Arena, sitting at a respectable 24-14. Like many young teams, they struggle to translate that same type of performance on the road. Away from home, their record flips to 14-24. Any wins for the Jazz would most likely have to come in Utah, and their narrow overtime loss to Golden State at home recently should indicate that they can compete with any team in the league on their home court.
Rudy Gobert is probably the most intimidating shot blocker in the Western Conference right now, and Derrick Favors is no slouch protecting the rim alongside him. LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan will have to work for their points inside, and they’ll likely try to pull their defenders away from the basket by establishing their mid-range game.
Duncan hasn’t shot the ball as well as he usually does outside of the painted area this season, at just under 30%. The unfortunate development is another reason why the Aldridge signing was so shrewd, as Aldridge has proven to be a more reliable mid-range shooter, particularly along the baseline. This spacing can open up driving lanes for guys like Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker to take advantage of.
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Utah’s 28th ranked offense is going to struggle to score points against the Spurs’ top ranked defense, but they don’t rely on gaudy point totals to win games. Where they should be concerned, however, is the prospect that such a non-explosive offense could ever mount a comeback against the Spurs’ steadfast defense. They couldn’t afford to let a game slip away with any bad quarter.
This would likely be a very bruising, slow series. The Jazz rank 2nd to last in fast break points, and they’ll try to establish a halting tempo. Nobody in the league gives up less rebounds than the Jazz, but they rank in the bottom half of the league in grabbing rebounds. They’re the opposite of the Rockets; they try to win by decreasing the amount of possessions in a game, as evidenced by the fact that they attempt the fewest amount of field goals per game.
This matchup would probably be the worst case scenario for the Spurs, considering the physicality that this series would bring. Duncan’s health is crucial for the Spurs’ championship hopes, and having to bang with Gobert down low for an entire series could be taxing.
On offense, Duncan can draw Gobert away from the paint to decrease the wear and tear. Gobert isn’t a focal point of the Jazz offense, only averaging 6 field goal attempts per game, so Duncan likely won’t be attacked too much when the Jazz run their offense. Most of the post shots by the Jazz come from Favors. He’s a handful for either Aldridge or Duncan, and the more youthful Aldridge will likely be asked to employ more defensive responsibility in the low post.
Beyond their front court, the Jazz are an intriguing team. Gordon Hayward is having his best season scoring the ball, and continuing to justify Utah’s decision to match the expensive offer sheet Charlotte signed him to almost two years ago. Shelvin Mack has played well since his trade from Atlanta, and Rodney Hood is looking like a steal with their late first round pick in 2014, displaying a silky mid-range shot.
While they may be a few seasons away from doing any real damage in a tough Western Conference, the Jazz could easily win a couple games in a Spurs series. This is the type of team that has gone out of style in a more fast-paced, finesse NBA. Their threat to grind out a couple wins in a seven game series is very high. The Jazz pose what would probably be the most difficult first round series for the Spurs to survive.