Spurs serve reminder of their depth in grabbing 2-0 series lead on Jazz
The Spurs led by as many as 38 points in dumping the Jazz 114-83 in Game 2
San Antonio showed off its balance as it had seven players score in double digits
Kawhi Leonard is the perfect splash of youth to San Antonio's aging nucleus
Heavy lied the crown last season as the top-seeded Spurs suffered one of the worst first-round upsets in playoff history. This year, they're the ones dishing out the embarrassment in their opening matchup. The Spurs cruised past the Jazz 114-83 in Game 2 on Wednesday in San Antonio to take a 2-0 lead, leaving little doubt as to how this series should end.
San Antonio jumped out to a 17-4 lead in the first quarter and used a 20-0 run in the second to push its lead to 23 at the break. There would be no Clippers-like comeback for the Jazz, who looked utterly befuddled in the second half when the deficit stretched to as many as 38 and eventually resulted in the franchise's second-worst playoff loss. The blowout might not have done much to test the Spurs, but it reminded us exactly what the title contenders look like when firing on all cylinders.
San Antonio, the most balanced team in the playoffs, finished with seven double-digit scorers in Game 2 and all five starters had scored less than six minutes into the game. Coach Gregg Popovich comfortably thumbed through his rotation the rest of the way, playing every Spur that suited up at least nine minutes and producing effective lineups that gave his starters plenty of rest.
Even after losing center Tiago Splitter to a sprained wrist in Game 1, San Antonio is still the deepest team in the postseason. The Thunder and Mavericks are also known to utilize skilled second units, but the Spurs' is the most prolific. In a win over the Warriors last month, San Antonio's reserves combined to score 82 points, the most by any NBA bench in 12 years.
Popovich looked like he'd rather be anywhere else when he accepted his second NBA Coach of the Year trophy before Wednesday's game. The expression on his face was a pained mixture of disinterest and boredom. And maybe he should be bored. This is Popovich's 16th season with the Spurs, the longest tenure of any current coach with the same team in the four major sports. He's led the Spurs to a numbing 15 straight playoff appearances and notched his 13th consecutive 50-win season despite playing just a 66-game schedule.
His pursuit of a fifth NBA title, which would move him into a tie for fourth all time, has featured some of his best work yet. The Spurs put together three separate 11-game winning streaks this season, including the 12-game torrent they're currently riding. Along the way, Popovich has developed young talent like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, DeJuan Blair and Splitter into meaningful role players and seamlessly meshed midseason additions Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw into the rotation. His demeanor would suggest otherwise, but Popovich's work this season has been sensational. His team's dismantling of the Jazz is just the latest example.
Much like Rajon Rondo was to the Celtics during their 2008 title run, Leonard is the perfect splash of young talent to the Spurs' talented-but-aging nucleus. With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili slashing the lane and drawing second defenders, Leonard spotted up to hit three three-pointers and finish with 17 points on Wednesday. Acquired from the Pacers in a draft-day swap for George Hill, the Spurs' rookie made veteran Richard Jefferson expendable earlier this year when he proved he could be an impact player on both ends of the floor.
Leonard soared on offense in Game 2,shooting an efficient 6-of-7 from the field, but it's his defense and energy (like Rondo) that makes him so special. Leonard frustrated Utah's Gordon Hayward during a 3-of-10 night and keyed the Spurs' defense, which held the Jazz to 34.4 percent shooting.
The Jazz allowed Parker to torch them for 28 points in Game 1 and didn't do a much better job of slowing him down in Game 2, surrendering 18 points and nine assists in just 28 minutes. The point guard position has been a glaring weakness for the Jazz all season, and it's catching up with them in the playoffs. This season Devin Harris averaged his fewest points (11.3), minutes (27.7) and assists (5.0) in seven years and never turned into the respectable replacement the franchise envisioned when it acquired him in the Deron Williams trade. In coach Tyrone Corbin's defense, the production from backup point guard Jamaal Tinsley (1-of-6, three turnovers in Game 2) hasn't exactly warranted a change.
If Utah wants to do better than a first-round exit next season, it'll need better play out of its floor general, something the team will likely have to look for in the draft or free agency.
Popovich knows when to take his foot off the gas pedal, but the Spurs would be wise to go for the sweep against the outmatched Jazz. Much like the Lakers are hoping to do against the Nuggets, the Spurs could benefit from a quick first-round series in order to buy them rest for the likes of 36-year-old Tim Duncan and 34-year-old Manu Ginobili before facing the Clippers or Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals. If San Antonio can close the series in Game 4 on Monday, it could potentially get a week's worth of rest if the other series goes the distance.
But don't think all the Spurs players are clamoring for more down time. In a moment of caught-on-camera candor, Parker was seen on the TNT telecast pleading with Popovich to keep him in the game during the second half. "I'm fine," Parker begged. "I didn't play for three days, Pop. I'm 29 years old." To which Popovich relented, "Get back out there."
Handled like a true Coach of the Year.