NBA Playoff Preview - San Antonio vs. Utah

NBA Playoff Preview - San Antonio vs. Utah

NBA Playoff Preview - San Antonio vs. Utah
May 19th, 2007

(Sports Network) - The third-seeded San Antonio Spurs and No. 4 Utah battle for the right to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals, as the teams meet in a best-of-seven series.

This is the fourth time that these teams have met in the playoffs. The Jazz are 3-0 against San Antonio in the postseason. Utah defeated the Spurs, 3-1, in the first round of the 1994 playoffs, and in the semifinals in 1996, 4-2, and 1998, 4-1.

San Antonio has advanced to the Western Conference finals for the eighth time in franchise history. They played the Lakers in 1982, 1983 and 2001, Houston in 1995, Portland in 1999, Dallas in 2003 and Phoenix in 2005. San Antonio is 3-4 in this round.

The Spurs, who lost in seven to the Dallas Mavericks in last year's semifinals, knocked out No. 6 Denver in five games in the opening round and survived a tough six-game series with the second-seeded Suns.

San Antonio's victory over the Suns was full of controversy. Spurs forward Robert Horry was suspended two games by the NBA, while Phoenix forwards Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw received one game apiece for an incident in Game 4.

The penalties came as the result of a flagrant foul call on Horry, who delivered a forearm to Suns guard Steve Nash with 18.2 seconds left in Game 4 at the AT&T Center. Horry was suspended for flagrantly fouling Nash and striking Raja Bell above the shoulders with a forearm. Stoudemire and Diaw were suspended for leaving "the immediate vicinity of their bench" during an altercation, according to Stu Jackson, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations.

Horry served his suspension by sitting out Games 5 and 6 of the series, while Stoudemire and Diaw missed the pivotal Game 5, which was won by the Spurs, 88-85, at US Airways Center.

All-Stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been unbelievable for the Spurs in the postseason. Duncan leads the club in scoring (23.8 ppg) and rebounding (12.3 rpg), while Parker is averaging 19.6 points and a team-best 6.2 assists per game.

While Duncan and Parker are playing at the top of their games, Manu Ginobili decided to show up against Phoenix and was a huge factor in the 4-2 series victory. Ginobili is averaging 15.8 points, 6.0 boards and 4.1 assists in the postseason, and continually knocked down big shots to help the Spurs make it back to the conference finals.

San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to three NBA championships during his tenure in San Antonio and was named the 2002-2003 NBA Coach of the Year, knows how to get the most out of his team and once again has figured out how to get them to the brink of earning a fourth trip to the NBA Finals.

The Jazz have returned to the West finals for the first time since 1998, when they swept the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0. They are 2-3 in the conference finals. Utah also defeated the Houston Rockets in six in 1997, and lost to Seattle, 4-3, in 1996, the Rockets, 4-1, in 1994 and in 1992 to Portland, 4-2.

Utah defeated the fifth-seeded Houston Rockets in seven games in the first round. The Jazz won Game 7, 103-99, at the Toyota Center to advance to the semis for the first time since 2000. The Rockets had the home-court advantage in the set since they had a better regular-season record.

In the conference semifinals, the Jazz disposed of No. 8 Golden State in five games. Utah, which split Games 3 and 4 at ORACLE Arena, won all three of its home games against the Warriors, and improved to 6-0 at EnergySolutions Arena during the playoffs.

Carlos Boozer has been unbelievable for Utah in the postseason. The Duke product leads the Jazz in scoring (24.4 ppg) and rebounding (12.3 rpg). He is shooting and impressive 53.9 percent from the floor and has made 72 percent of his foul shots. Boozer has come through in the clutch, and has been a shining star in the playoffs.

Deron Williams, who is appearing in his first postseason and completed his sophomore campaign in the league, is averaging 16.4 points, 4.6 boards and a team-high 8.9 assists in the playoffs, while Mehmet Okur has contributed 13.7 points and 9.1 boards.

Veteran guard Derek Fisher, who is averaging 11.0 points in the playoffs, has been an inspiration. He did not play in Game 1 against Golden State because his daughter has a form of eye cancer. Fisher hit big shots during the semis and came through when the Warriors needed him most.

Utah ended a three-year playoff drought by qualifying for this year's postseason. Prior to the 2006-07 campaign, the Jazz last appeared in the playoffs in 2003 when they were eliminated in five games by the Sacramento Kings in the opening round.

Head coach Jerry Sloan has guided the Jazz to the playoffs for the 16th time during his tenure with the club. Sloan, who has been general on the Utah bench since the 1988-89 campaign, is 86-84 all-time in the playoffs, 84-80 with the Jazz.

During the regular season, the teams split four contests. Both clubs picked up a pair of victories at home.

San Antonio owns the home-court advantage in this set.

FRONTCOURT: Duncan is still one of the elite forwards in the game and is playing like he is on a mission, while Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto are serviceable in the middle and Bruce Bowen knows his role and takes a lot of pride in his defensive work.

It doesn't matter who Popovich starts in the middle. Elson and Oberto are there to be physical and hopefully get some garbage points and rebounds. Duncan had an excellent series against the Suns and will need to do the same versus Utah.

Okur, Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko, who is averaging 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in the postseason, are one of the top all-around frontcourts in the league. The 6-11 Okur can hit the outside jumper and has some low-post moves, while Boozer will do his best work off the boards and around the hoop. The athletic Kirilenko is not producing offensively like he once did, but he has been solid defensively

On paper, this matchup favors Utah. But, its what happens on the court that matters. Boozer has been one of the top players in the postseason, but Duncan is playing like he is in another world.

Duncan will continue his stellar play, and that is the difference here.

EDGE: SPURS

BACKCOURT: Parker has a solid all-around game and fits perfectly into Popovich's style of play. Veteran Michael Finley, who is averaging 14.5 points in the playoffs, excels in transition and should have another strong series against Utah.

Williams is one of the top point guards in the league and has been awesome in his first NBA playoffs. The Illinois product can score and has a knack for getting the ball to his teammates at the right time.

Fisher can handle the ball and is capable of knocking down the long jumper. The 6-1 Fisher, who completed his first season with Utah, won three championship rings with the Lakers and was acquired from Golden State last offseason for this time of year.

The Jazz will have a tough time guarding Finley and Ginobili, who will come off the bench, in this series. Parker is crafty and has been here before, while Williams is getting his first taste of the conference finals.

EDGE: SPURS

BENCH: The 36-year-old Horry, who is averaging 6.4 points and 3.9 boards in the postseason, is back. Horry has won six championship rings in his career, and seems to play his best basketball during this time of year. Even though he may ruined his legacy with his actions against the Suns, Horry will once again be ready to hit the big shot when San Antonio needs a bucket.

Ginobili will be the spark for Popovich off the bench. He is instant offense and started to play very well in the semis. Versatile guard Brent Barry will also get some big minutes, and can play both guard spots and small forward.

Sloan will call on veteran swingman Matt Harpring, who can play small forward or shooting guard, Gordan Giricek, and big man Paul Millsap to play important minutes off the bench.

Harpring is averaging 10.4 points and 5.3 boards in the playoffs, while Giricek has made an impressive 52.2 percent (12of-23) of his shots from beyond the arc. Millsap has been solid down low, and has made 56.6 percent of his shots from the floor and has played over 14 minutes per contest.

EDGE: SPURS

PREDICTION: San Antonio is headed back to the NBA Finals. Utah will put up a fight, as the Jazz are tough at home and have great fan support. Duncan will get the job done on the inside, while Parker will show Williams what it takes to win the big one. Experience will be a big factor in this series.

SPURS IN SIX

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Re: NBA Playoff Preview - San Antonio vs. Utah

Preview: Jazz at Spurs
Mon, May 21, 2007
By Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO -- After seeing the Utah Jazz's Deron Williams open the Western Conference finals with a career-best 34 points, San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker vowed never to be so generous to his counterpart again.

Not on defense. At the dinner table.

See, the night before the series began, Parker took Williams out for some fine French dining.

''If he's going to score like that, it's the last time,'' Parker said Monday, laughing. ''I'm changing restaurants tonight - something bad.''

Parker was able to joke about Williams' big game because his team won Game 1 on Sunday. Yet the way Williams played, and the way he powered a late comeback, has the Spurs wondering about a new strategy for Game 2 Tuesday night.

San Antonio's plan in the opener was to focus on slowing Williams' two prime passing options, All-Star forward Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. The Spurs followed orders so well the duo was a combined 6-of-25 through three quarters, a big reason why San Antonio led by 16.

In the fourth quarter, Williams finally decided to make himself the main scoring option. He scored 18 points in the period, helping Utah tighten things in the final minutes. The Jazz never really came close to winning, but they went away confident they can, regardless of what's now a 17-game losing streak in San Antonio and all the Spurs' championship experience.

''It was important that we battled back, got it under 10 and we made a game of it, we didn't get blown off the court,'' Williams said. ''It's not the end of the series. It's one game. We feel we can play better. Hopefully we will.''

Many basketball fans remember Williams best for helping Illinois reach the NCAA title game in 2005. He had a solid rookie year, but was overshadowed by another rookie point guard, Chris Paul of the Hornets who won rookie of the year honors.

Things are changing this postseason, now that Williams has led Utah past Houston and Golden State, and has his team among the NBA's final four. He's averaging 17.8 points, 8.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds, solid numbers for a veteran, much a 22-year-old in his first postseason.

''He's already become one of the best (point guards) in the league,'' San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. ''He just gets more and more comfortable every month or so. He grows in intelligence, as far as what's going on in the NBA, and his confidence level. He's got the body and the toughness and the skills. He's going to be one of the top point guards that we've had for a long time.''

Utah already had one of those in John Stockton. He was controlling the offense the last time the Jazz reached the conference finals in 1998, with longtime running mate Karl Malone right beside him.

Stockton-to-Malone was one of the NBA's top combinations for a generation. Only a few years since they broke up, Utah seems to already have found another great pair in Williams and Boozer. That's the opinion of San Antonio's Robert Horry, who broke into the league when Stockton and Malone were in their prime and already considers the new tandem 90 percent as good.

''In a couple of years, they're going to be better than Stockton and Malone, in my eyes,'' Horry said. ''The things Williams can do are extraordinary. The one thing he might be lacking is not being able to pass as good as Stockton. But I still think they're going to be a better combination.''

Horry said Williams' big body (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and speed are among his advantages over Stockton.

''The funny thing about Williams is you never know what you're going to get out of him - he can get people around him involved or he can get his,'' Horry said. ''In the second half, he went for his and he got it. Next game, he might be passing the ball, getting Boozer and all of those guys open shots. He's just a great all-around basketball player.''

Besides containing Williams, the Spurs also are wary of a Game 2 letdown.

Part of Utah's late success Sunday was exhaustion catching up to San Antonio from a physical and emotional series against Phoenix that ended about 39 hours earlier. The Spurs had a similar situation last year, handling a quick turnaround to beat Dallas in a series opener only to get crushed at home the next game.

Parker said players were thinking back to that mistake in the locker room after Game 1. Although Popovich dismissed the idea as ancient history, he did give players an off day Monday; Horry and backup point guard Jacque Vaughn showed up at the practice gym anyway to shoot some jumpers, while Parker stopped by merely to get treatment for his right shoulder and knees.

''The game we really want is tomorrow so we make sure we give them no hope,'' Parker said. ''Especially with a young team like that, it's always good.''

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