Then the playoffs started.
After three one-sided battles, a diminished Utah team is down 3-0. The best overall season of Jefferson's career has suddenly been washed away. Millsap has been manhandled by Diaw. And while Favors has thrilled and Kanter at times has held his own, the Jazz as a whole have been miniaturized.
Utah ended the regular season ranked second out of 30 teams in average points in the paint (49.8), trailing only Denver. Through three disappointing postseason contests, the Jazz are averaging just 36 points in the lane and have been outscored by a combined 170-108 in the paint.
"They've gotten everything they've wanted. We haven't gotten what we wanted," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said.
Much of the series-altering statistical flip-flop is due to Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who has revamped his game and revitalized his career while San Antonio has evolved into the premier 3-point shooting team in the league. Parker has long excelled with the ball in his hands, pairing with Duncan to re-create scenes from the John Stockton and Karl Malone playbook. But he's added a smooth midrange shot to his normal repertoire of running floaters and quick layups, leaving everyone from Devin Harris and Gordon Hayward to Jefferson and Kanter defenseless in the lane.
"They do a good job of sprinting into screens and making it hard on the big guys to be up, able to hedge. … The guards do a great job of coming off the screen tight, not giving very much room and putting pressure on the defense," Hayward said. "It's like if you pick one thing up, something else is open."
Duncan's steady shot, an inefficient Jazz offense and a tight Spurs defense that has consistently pushed the Jazz out of their comfort zone have also played roles in Utah's paint woes.
But for every ugly Jazz offensive statistic highlighted by Utah's 88 average points, 11.7 off its norm a seasonlong inability to defend the pick-and-roll is at the center of the Jazz's 3-0 hole. The numbing trend was never more evident than in Game 3, when Parker poured in 16 points during the fourth quarter, San Antonio outscored the Jazz 50-28 overall in the paint, and Utah's interior defense was constantly exposed.
Through three games, the Spurs are shooting 69 percent (67 of 97) in the restricted area and 46 percent (18 of 39) in the remainder of the lane. With San Antonio also drilling 39 percent of its 3-point attempts, Utah's defense has been left in no-man's-land.
It's Gregg Popovich's coaching and the Spurs' system at their best. The relentless attack has left near-hopeless Utah looking like a team with no business being in the playoffs. And as San Antonio picks and rolls and Parker makes perfect split-second decisions, the Jazz keep getting picked apart.
"Whatever they got going on, it's working," Jefferson said.
Spurs at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • 6 p.m., Monday
TV • ROOT Sports, TNT
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Spurs lead 3-0 in best-of-seven series
Last meeting • Spurs, 102-90 (Saturday)
About the Spurs • San Antonio has won 13 consecutive games and 24 of 26. The Spurs' last loss was April 11 during a regular-season contest against the Los Angeles Lakers. … Eight San Antonio players are shooting at least 50 percent from the field during the playoffs. … The Spurs have won or tied every quarter except the fourth period in Game 2.
About the Jazz • Coach Tyrone Corbin hinted Sunday he might start Derrick Favors. … Utah rookie guard Alec Burks is averaging 8.7 points and 15.7 minutes during the series, while rookie center Enes Kanter is averaging 4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 12 minutes. … Jazz starters Gordon Hayward, Josh Howard and Devin Harris are shooting less than 42 percent from the field, with Hayward hitting just 23.1 percent of his shots and Howard connecting on 33.3 percent.
And the series turns
The Jazz ranked second out of 30 teams during the regular season in average points in the paint (49.8), while post players Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap formed the core of Utah's inside-out offense. Utah has been outscored 170-108 by San Antonio in the paint during the first-round playoff series, though, with everyone from point guard Tony Parker to centers Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter ripping the Jazz apart.
FG pct 38.8 51.2
3pt 28.1 39
FT 72.2 78.3
Average scoring 88 107.3
Points in paint 36 56.6
Assist-to-turnover ratio 1.2 2.2
Points per shot 1.04 1.31