The Jazz built some late-season buzz by winning their last five games and experimenting (again) with ultra-big lineups. Those lineups, featuring center Al Jefferson and power forwards Derrick Favors and Paul Millsap, outscored opponents by the equivalent of nearly 40 points per game in just shy of 115 minutes together. With Utah facing San Antonio in the first round, the Jazz’s size brought back memories of Memphis torturing the Spurs on the interior in last season’s playoffs.
But in the first two games of San Antonio’s romp, Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin kept the big lineup in reserve until things got beyond desperate. That changed in Game 3, when Corbin went big earlier and for much longer. Now, with Utah facing elimination Monday in Game 4, Corbin is getting all crazy and starting this trio alongside point guard Devin Harris and swingman Gordon Hayward, according to Brian T. Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune.
But guess what? The ultra-big groups haven’t fazed the Spurs much on either end of the floor. The Jefferson/Favors/Millsap trio has logged 28 minutes in this series, stretches in which the Spurs have won by 10 points, per NBA.com. That works out roughly to a 17-point margin over the full 48 minutes — a blowout. Of course, the Spurs have won the first three games by an average of 19 points, so a slightly less devastating rout would constitute progress for a badly overmatched Jazz team. In all seriousness, this lineup is a funky beast that gets all of Utah’s best players on the court together, and it’s absolutely worth a shot in a no-lose situation. The Spurs have paid almost no attention to Utah’s weak-link wing, whether it’s Josh Howard or DeMarre Carroll, sagging off those players to muck up Utah’s spacing. Shuttling Howard to the bench also gives Corbin more options in trying to wring points from a scoring-challenged group.
Just don’t expect it to work against a Spurs team that clearly watched Utah’s late-season winning streak and prepared for these lineups. The truth is, this Jazz team — even this huge version — never made for an accurate comparison with last season’s Grizzlies. That Memphis team had two big men, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who could batter undersized opponents with one-on-one, back-the-basket moves. Utah has one such player, Jefferson. Millsap is a wonderful all-around player with a diverse offensive game, but he is not a bully on the block. He scored precisely zero baskets in the post against San Antonio in the regular season. His post game typically consists of face-up jumpers, turnarounds and off-the-dribble attacks, stuff that Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson and (at the end of Game 3) Danny Green have been able to handle with a bit of help. Millsap had success posting Jackson on a couple of possessions in the third quarter of Game 3, but not nearly enough to tilt the balance for Utah.
Favors is a budding star, and he has occasionally hurt Bonner in this series on the offensive glass and with a nifty face-up shot or two. But Bonner has had success fronting Favors, who just doesn’t have the kind of polished post game to consistently punish someone like Bonner one-on-one. In the second half of Game 3 against Bonner on the block, Favors clanked a long face-up jumper, traveled and tap-danced himself into a traveling violation.
In other words: San Antonio’s defense can handle this. Tim Duncan’s length has given Jefferson issues — he still gives just about everyone issues — and the Spurs have been as creative as you’d expect in sending help to Duncan from unpredictable, confusing places. Coach Gregg Popovich even experimented late in Game 3 with the seldom-used Duncan/Tiago Splitter duo as a defense-first way to counter the size of these big Utah groups.
And on offense, San Antonio has just picked these lineups apart to the tune of 132 points per 100 possessions, a ridiculous number no NBA team has ever approached over a full season. The Spurs have done this by expertly spreading the floor, forcing Utah’s big bodies to scamper the maximum distance possible in order to complete rotations and help assignments. In Game 1, that meant posting up Duncan against Jefferson on one side of the floor, clearing everyone else away and giving Utah the choice of either letting Duncan work alone or sending help from a long distance.
In Game 3, that meant a little bit of everything. When Manu Ginobili was in the game against Utah’s big groups, the Spurs ran some side-to-side action designed to get the veteran guard moving around screens as Utah’s relatively slow defense gave chase. A lot of those sets started like this:
Duncan is holding the ball at the left elbow, with Ginobili primed to pop around a Bonner screen at the right elbow, take a hand-off/screen from Duncan and go to work — all while Jackson and Tony Parker move around on the weak side. Here’s what the situation looks like when Ginobili takes the ball and turns the corner:
Uh, oh. That’s Jackson, a fine shooter from the corners, lurking in the left corner as his man, Millsap, slides into the paint to contain Ginobili. Millsap is nimble and smart, but he’s not especially fast, and he’s not used to this kind of dramatic outside-in help.
Also note that Favors is sagging off the always-dangerous Bonner, with Duncan set to hammer Favors with a back screen if Ginobili decides to kick the ball Bonner’s way. Favors is a lightning bolt with long arms, a guy who could lead the league in shot-blocking as early as next season, but chasing stretch power forwards around the arc is a challenge for even the best big-man defenders. Still, Favors and Millsap are fast and smart enough to make this work at times on defense.
But when in doubt, San Antonio can just clear the floor for a Parker/Duncan pick-and-roll targeting Jefferson. San Antonio has been relentless attacking Jefferson in the pick-and-roll. Game 3 reached a point when it was almost depressing to watch Jefferson fail over and over. A mercy rule was in order. Jefferson has always struggled to defend in space, especially against the pick-and-roll, and the Spurs are just a nightmare for him. He’s not comfortable jumping out above the pick to contain ball-handlers, but when he sags back, Jefferson just doesn’t take consistently good angles or stand his ground against opposing point guards. The matador comparison is almost too obvious. He’s liable to jump to the wrong side of a pick, giving up an open lane. When he recovers back to his man, he sometimes does so with his arms at his sides, instead of spread wide in the air, where they might deter an entry pass.
Jefferson is a solid post defender and a very good shot-blocker, but he just hasn’t been up to the challenge in the series. He’s a huge liability on defense against a team like San Antonio, one reason the Spurs have managed just fine against Utah’s big lineup so far.