It's easy to give in to the temptation to write off the Utah Jazz in their playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs.
After all, the Spurs downed the Jazz in three of four games this season, and Utah's only win came on a final-second shot in overtime by John Stockton."We beat them one time, kind of in a fluke game," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "It's not a tremendous feeling, having to go down there and open a series on their homecourt."
But when you look at their season matchups more closely, you see reason for optimism in this best-of-seven series, which begins tonight at 5 MDT in the Alamodome. Two of the Jazz losses, in fact, can be thrown out as regular-season aberrations.
The first time these teams met this season, on Jan. 3 in San Antonio, the Jazz led by seven in the second quarter when referee Ronnie Nunn and Sloan got into a name-calling tiff. From that point, just about every time a whistle blew it was Nunn, and the call was against Utah. The Spurs went to the line 48 times to the Jazz's 23. Utah was called for 35 fouls to San Antonio's 19.
Another Jazz loss, the last time these teams met, occurred on April 8 at the Delta Center, as Utah was in the middle of a late-season slump that saw it lose seven of nine games.
So while there's no question that the Spurs provide some matchup problems for Utah, there's also little doubt the Jazz can make this a contest - especially if they play as they did in their home games against Portland.
The Spurs' first-round matchup was against the Suns. San Antonio closed Phoenix out in four games, two of which were blowouts.
One thing that should be interesting in the Jazz-Spurs series is Utah's defensive approach. Its strategy for some time now has been to have Karl Malone defend David Robinson with teammates helping out on the double-team. But the Spurs have made the Jazz pay for that with good 3-point shooting, taking advantage of whichever man doubles down on the Admiral.
"Every game we lost to them, it wasn't David Robinson - though he's certainly a great player - it was their ability to make 3-point shots that broke our hearts," said Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa.
Asked if the Jazz might decide to play Robinson straight up and stay home with the 3-point shooters, as they did so successfully in Game 5 against Portland, Chiesa said, "That's the great debate. They take the most 3-point shots off early offense in the NBA. The difference (between them and Portland) is their guys are legitimate 3-point shooters. We've got to be able to take that away from them."
Chances are Utah will open with its usual defensive approach, then adjust if the Spurs' perimeter shooters are hot. They've been that lately; against Phoenix, they shot 52 percent from the 3-point line. Chuck Person alone shot a phenomenal 61.9 percent.
"With a guy like Chuck Person, you fall asleep one trip down the floor and boom, the shot's there," said Jazz forward Adam Keefe.
Keefe figures to play more against San Antonio than he did vs. the Blazers, not only because he defends perimeter shooters like Person and Sean Elliott well but because of the Spurs' defensive strategy.
"The Spurs double-team Karl (Malone) a lot, which means Adam Keefe will be the slice guy cutting to the basket," Chiesa said. Bryon Russell also figures to get some key defensive assignments.
If there's anything that appears to favor the Jazz at first glance, it's depth. With guard Doc Rivers missing two games due to back spasms, Spurs coach Bob Hill went with a seven-man rotation against Phoenix. Rivers is listed as doubtful for Tuesday's game, but even if he returns to full strength he figures to see only limited minutes.
Sloan, on the other hand, had 10 players who averaged nine minutes or more a game during the Portland series. If Keefe moves back into the rotation, Utah could throw 11 players at the Spurs, in waves.
The Spurs will be trying to get a step or two further than last season, when they reached the Western Conference Finals only to lose to Houston as Dennis Rodman self-destructed.
Asked how the Spurs had changed, Sloan said, "They're all on the same page now. They're very much together as a group of guys. It looks to me they're happier."
"It's going to be a tough series," Malone said. "They have a lot of guys playing well for them."