Every now and then in the NBA, one of those nights comes along to remind a team exactly where they are and where they aren’t. For the Utah Jazz, that night has happened in three straight games.
Those “measuring stick” experiences can be valuable in isolation. After three straight losses at the hands of elite NBA teams — the latest a 118-81 drubbing against San Antonio — the Jazz have probably gotten more of the measuring stick than they bargained for.
In Utah’s defense, they at least came close in back-to-back contests with the Thunder, who served up the first two helpings of reality once they remembered that they have an extra gear Utah doesn’t possess. The Jazz were tied with OKC until the 1:06 mark on Friday night, and in the Sunday rematch down south, they were actually in the driver’s seat for much of the fourth quarter until a fall-from-ahead overtime loss. In-game forecasting site inpredictable.com actually gave Utah a 91 percent chance of winning with 2:04 left when a Russell Westbrook miss went out of bounds to Utah, and an 81 percent chance of winning when Westbrook missed a putback with 23 seconds left in regulation.
Obviously OKC beat the odds, as you read in Aaron Hefner’s recap. And two things became clear as soon as the Thunder forced overtime:
Simply put, playing a back-to-back is always hard. Giving everything you’ve got, going to overtime and losing emotionally is even harder. That doesn’t begin to serve as exoneration for the lacking intensity in Alamo City on Monday, but Utah was behind the eight ball in Jazz-Spurs before it started, largely because stars Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors both had to go for 41+ minutes in Sunday’s losing effort.
So how bad was the beatdown inflicted by basketball’s second-best unit? Somehow, it was even worse than that score suggests.
Spurs commentator and retired Jazz-killer Sean Elliott playfully asked when San Antonio was up 88-48 whether the winning basket had already been scored. In other words, he was wondering aloud if the Spurs already had enough points to withstand any remaining offense the Jazz could muster. It turns out he was right, by a decent spell. Once Kawhi Leonard converted the first of two free throws at 5:07 in the third quarter, the Spurs already had what they needed to outdo Utah’s eventual 81 points. They didn’t need any of their points from the game’s final 17 minutes!
It’s a goofy exercise, really, but it underscores how completely overmatched the guys in green were. The 37-point final margin marked Utah’s third-worst defeat in the last 10 NBA seasons and one of the 14 worst losses in franchise history. There were no shortage of culprits in this one.
In other words, the Jazz were just beat, to a man.
The Spurs are also, you know, ridiculously good. Their defensive rating, if it held up, would literally be the best in modern NBA history2. They came into the night with a 5.2-point cushion over the second-best D, and they cleared their own bar and then some with 88.5 against Utah.
All of that is a polite way of saying that, aside from dissecting stats and individual performances, what we witnessed at the AT&T Center was just a good old talent deficit. San Antonio has enough heady, capable veterans to go two deep and then some, while Utah was exposed once again for having too few rotation-ready pros.
To that point, let’s go back to Neto for a moment. I quite like Neto, and I think on the whole he has a good impact when compared against most rookie point guards that aren’t super athletes. But watch him (and, to a lesser degree, his ‘mates) get completely roasted by Parker four times in the span of a few minutes.
I mean, at a certain point that’s not even fair. And, this isn’t even me saying it’s Neto’s fault or that he shouldn’t be playing3. But that stretch marked for me the dichotomy of the talent battle as well as any.
And that was mostly how the night felt, whether it was Parker dancing Neto around screens, Aldridge effortlessly shaking off Trevor Booker, or — and I swear this really happened — Matt “Red Rocket” Bonner beating Lyles off the dribble with a spin move into the lane. There probably wasn’t a moment all night when an objective person could look at the floor and say “Utah’s five guys are equal to or better than SA’s five guys.” The Spurs are built to contend, and the Jazz aren’t. Not yet.
Now that they’ve been reminded in three straight outings, they have some homework to do.