But after spending 66 games during a lockout-shortened campaign discovering its identity, Utah immediately trashed its best assets and embraced its worst traits during Games 1 and 2 against San Antonio, falling by a combined 46 points and leading only for 3 minutes and 49 seconds during 96 minutes of action.
Jefferson's been a no-show. Devin Harris has been worse. The Jazz's offense has collapsed, with five starters who require the ball to succeed failing to sacrifice so they can function as an efficient unit. Utah's defense? A trampoline for a Spurs party, with everyone from Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Tony Parker and Tim Duncan taking turns in the air.
The worst-case scenario for the Jazz after two games in San Antonio would've been an 0-2 deficit and a major Utah injury. Less than 48 hours before Game 3 Saturday in Salt Lake City, the Jazz aren't much better off.
Blake Ahearn and Jamaal Tinsley have been the Jazz's best 3-point shooters. Twenty-year-old power forward Derrick Favors has been Utah's best player, but he continues to be buried in the second unit, stuck behind Paul Millsap and Jefferson. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has owned Corbin, the Jazz's second-year leader.
The negatives are nearly endless. And a post-Game 2 elegy by TNT analyst Charles Barkley says it all: "I always feel bad when a team gets swept. I just hope they win a game."
A ghost-like Corbin was hesitant late Wednesday when asked about altering Utah's starting lineup or making changes to the team's broken rotation. Ten Jazz players are averaging at least 13 minutes, while 2011 lottery picks Enes Kanter and Alec Burks have clocked major time during a period when many teams shrink their active unit to eight players. Josh Howard's unexpected promotion to the starting lineup has backfired, with the nine-year veteran shooting just 23.1 percent from the field and taking shot attempts away from Hayward.
"We'll look at [making changes] and see what gives us the best chance," Corbin said. "We have to play better, first of all. I don't care who we put on the floor. … The guys just have to understand this a different ball of wax here and we have to make sure we match the intensity of every play on both ends of the floor, and you match it every time down. You can't afford to take a break against [the Spurs], especially."
The Jazz's biggest change revolves around Jefferson. Utah entered the series knowing Harris would struggle to contain Parker. But Jefferson's two-game effort and output have been shocking, reinforcing claims long made by critics who believe his lofty regular-season numbers have often been hollow.
San Antonio's defense has shrunk the floor, then capitalized on the Jazz's poor floor spacing. Millsap and Jefferson have yet to become threats, and the latter has been thrown off-balance by Duncan's playoff expertise and random double teams that have constantly pushed Utah's primary offensive asset away from his sweet spots.
Every playoff game is a unique battle, and the Jazz could suddenly change the series with a Game 3 revival. But first, Utah has to start playing basketball again. Jefferson knows that rarely happened in San Antonio.
"We done been through, believe it or not, worse than this and we always bounce back," he said. "Just got to do it again."
Jazz starters through Game 2:
Player FG pct Pts Reb Ast
Devin Harris 31.3 6 1.5 1.5
Gordon Hayward 31.3 12.5 2.5 3
Josh Howard 23.1 5 4.5 1
Paul Millsap 48.0 14.5 7 0
Al Jefferson 41.9 13 6.5 3
The +/- for Utah's starters during a 114-83 Game 2 loss to San Antonio on Wednesday:
P San Antonio at Utah, Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • TNT, ROOT