If finishing first in the Western Conference wasn’t enough for some people (including me), their dominant sweep of the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, winning by an average margin of 16 points, might be the final piece in convincing doubters that this team isn’t what last year’s San Antonio Spurs were about.
Utah did make life harder in Game 4. You can’t completely blow them out every game. Teams adjust, as the Jazz went back to their big lineup, with Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson holding the front court. They managed to come back from a 21 point deficit to only 4 late in the game, but you can’t win the game without any outside shooting. Even on a bad offensive day from the Spurs, Utah finished with 0-13 from beyond the arc, and that was that.
The Spurs? A fantastic 10-22, pretty much the only thing that worked for them throughout the game. Most of all, Manu Ginobili shook off whatever was troubling him in the first three games (If you ask him and Popovich, the answer would be nothing), scoring 17 points, making three tres. The Jazz’ shot 20% from beyond the arc for the series, one of only three teams to shoot that bad in the last 15 playoffs. All were swept aside, including the Lakers in last year’s terrible semi final against the Mavs.
For the Spurs, the sharpshooting was nothing new. They finished shooting 40.7% for the series, something that eliminated the Jazz’ advantage when playing with their big lineup. Without any scoring from the backcourt in the first two games, even Devin Harris averaging 20 points at home didn’t do much good. Tony Parker didn’t even need to lead the team in scoring in game 4. There’s just so much depth, and always someone to step up, it’s impossible to completely shut this team down despite the misleading ‘oldness’ of their ‘Big Three’.
Looking like the best team in the West? The Thunder swept the Jazz, so a sweep isn’t the only indication. But the Spurs handled the Thunder well during the regular season, and unlike last year, when the Spurs collapsed against Grizzlies in the first round, they seem to be much better, much fresher. This team looks much more confident in their goal and how far they can go.
Next up are the Grizzlies or the Clippers, with LA holding a 3-1 lead. The Spurs have an edge against both teams in the regular season series, so it really doesn’t matter. Both are different beasts than the Jazz, especially the Clippers who rely heavily, or maybe even completely, on Chris Paul’s ability to create and score off the dribble.
But games like game 4 prove how different the Spurs are this season. The confidence in the second unit, who outscored the Jazz 33-4 in the first half, leads to a much better game, without the panic of ‘what will happen if Duncan-Ginobili-Parker triangle doesn’t work’. The Spurs looked like the most impressive team in the first round of the playoffs, and there are fewer and fewer reasons to believe they aren’t ready to make (and complete) a run at their fifth NBA title.