While I believe the Spurs will sweep the Jazz, I don't think it'll necessarily be an easy series. The Jazz are tough, physical and execute well on both ends. Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin has done a better job than anyone could have predicted after taking over for Jerry Sloan and losing Deron Williams. Plus, winning in Salt Lake City is difficult regardless of who the Jazz have in uniform.
Pop and the coaching staff have much to consider heading into this series. Here are the top ten most pressing issues:
1. Establish Duncan Early
Tim Duncan has been fantastic lately, particularly early in games. Countless blowouts in the past month have been kickstarted by Duncan catching fire in the opening minutes.
Traditionally, establishing Duncan meant giving him the ball in the post and getting out of the way. However, that's not the case anymore; Duncan establishes himself by hitting mid-range jumpers. If he can knock down those shots, he'll force his defender to run at him, which then opens up room for Duncan to drive. Additionally, those early shots would force the Jazz to send help from the perimeter --- opening up the three-point shooting even more.
2. Pick-and-Rolls Ad Nauseam
Statistically, the Spurs run the most efficient pick-and-roll sets in the NBA. The Jazz, on the other hand, are the third worst team in the NBA at defending the pick-and-roll. It doesn't take a degree in Soviet Studies to figure out the Spurs should rely even more on pick-and-rolls than they usually do. In fact, down the stretch of close games, I think the Spurs should run a pick-and-roll literally every time up the court.
The Jazz have two players to specifically attack in pick-and-rolls sets. First and foremost is Al Jefferson. While he's not bad at defending the post, he's well below average in terms of defending pick-and-rolls. When rookie center Enes Kanter is on the court, he's the other player to go at relentlessly.
3. Find Shooters
The Spurs are one of the very best shooting teams in the NBA. The Jazz, conversely, are one of the worst. That said, if the Spurs aren't able to take advantage of this strength, the series suddenly becomes a lot closer than it is on paper.
With more than a half dozen three-point shooters on San Antonio's roster, Pop and the coaching staff don't have much excuse to stick with a cold shooter. Especially if a shooter is timid, the coaches should have a quick hook. This is particularly true for players who are banged up (Read: Neal, Gary) or have a history of not shining in the spotlight (Read: Hunter, The Sandwich).
4. Keep it Moving
Just because the postseason is tipping off doesn't mean the Spurs have to revert to playoff basketball of yesteryear. The 2012 Spurs depend on their ability to be dominant on the offensive end. While the defense may be able to shine from time to time, it simply won't be the consistent force it used to be.
In practical terms, this means the Spurs need to maintain as fast of a tempo as possible. Pushing after defensive rebounds is mandatory. Even in halfcourt settings, quick pick-and-rolls or early-offense motion is much preferred throwing the ball into the low block or over-dribbling out on the perimeter.
5. Pack* the Paint
The Jazz score a lot of points in the paint (second most in the league) but aren't able to shoot accurately from beyond the three-point arc. As a result, it should be no surprise that packing the paint should be a priority. In their regular season matchups, San Antonio made it a point to send extra defenders into the lane as much as possible.
However, packing the paint doesn't mean the Spurs should sag off of everyone. In April, Gordon Hayward and Devin Harris have been on fire from beyond the three-point arc. Alec Burks has also been shooting the ball well. Those should be the last three players the Spurs choose to leave open when making defensive rotations.
6. Size Might Matter
Heading into the playoffs, it appears as if the postseason plan is to always pair a pivot (Duncan or Tiago Splitter) with a stretch four (Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner). And while that alignment is proven to make the offense run smoother, Pop and the coaching staff should be open to the idea that size (or the lackthere of) may become a concern.
If the Spurs are having trouble controlling the paint, going away from that alignment has to be a possibility. Corbin will deploy lineups that include three bigmen at the same time, which could call for added height (Splitter next to Duncan) or extra bulk (DeJuan Blair next to Duncan). Speaking of Blair, his success against Paul Millsap shouldn't be completely ignored.
7. Don't Ignite Harris
Recently, Devin Harris has played quite well. In the first 40 games of the season, Harris averaged 9.8 points and 4.4 assists per game. In his final 23 games, he raised his averages to 14 points and six assists.
To make sure he doesn't explode in this series, only two Spurs players should be allowed to defend him: Tony Parker and Danny Green. No one else -- especially Gary Neal -- should be put on Harris. Parker has had a fine defensive season and while Green has had some issues maneuvering around picks this year, the Jazz don't run pick-and-roll sets well enough to think twice about putting Green on Harris (Utah is statistically the second worst pick-and-roll team in the NBA).
8. Gang Rebounding
Outside of the Bulls, the Jazz are the best offensive rebounding team in the league. When they opt to play Millsap at small forward, that will make Utah even deadlier on the offensive glass.
On paper, the Spurs should be able to neutralize this issue since they are the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA. That said, paper isn't going to go out and get those boards. The coaching staff needs to emphasize that all five players need to drop down and help on the glass. Aggressively boxing out is another must for San Antonio to survive against this bigger opponent.
9. Ignore the Refs
Yes, the Jazz foul a lot. Yes, the refs won't catch every foul. Yes, the Jazz fans will probably be able to intimidate the refs. All of these are known issues going into this series. Utah, just like they were under Sloan, is going to relentlessly pound. It's a trait that is partly responsible for their franchise being so successful over the years. (And, if you ask me, the Jazz have the best fans in the NBA.)
But because the Spurs should already know all of that, they shouldn't even attempt to whine their way into more calls. If they are getting bumped, they just need to bump back. If a team plays soft or tries to depend on whistles against Utah, they are unlikely to have success.
10. Use Depth Liberally
This regular season, Pop's usage of San Antonio's depth was extremely impressive. Only one player averaged more than 29 minutes (Parker at 32.1), while 11 players averaged at least 19 minutes. Though Pop can't spread the minutes that thinly in the playoffs, he also shouldn't change the rotations too much.
Going into this series against the Jazz, Pop should definitely use a rotation that features ten players. The plan should be to increase Parker's workload up to about 36 minutes, Duncan up to about 34 minutes and Manu Ginobili to about 30 minutes. But, unless something goes wrong, that's as much as Pop should shift things. Preferably, all ten players in the rotation should play more than a dozen minutes per game. Not only will that allow San Antonio to ease their way into the playoffs, it will also make the Spurs the fresher team coming down the stretch of games.