The Jazz came out fighting this time and didn’t lie down but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Spurs from gaining a stranglehold on this series with a 102-90 victory Saturday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round at EnergySolutions Arena. The atmosphere in the arena was great, as to be expected from Jazz fans during a playoff game, but I’m somewhat surprised to admit that it wasn’t as good as the Phoenix game that clinched the playoff berth. To be fair, the primary reason for that is how painfully obvious it is that the Spurs are a superior team and that they took complete control of the game in the 2nd half. It is difficult for the fans to stay engaged when the home team is already down 2-0 in the series and starts missing every possible shot to allow the opponent to go up by double digits. The Jazz came back to life, but I’ll get to that shortly.
The game started off quite badly for the Jazz. Tim Duncan made two trips to the free throw line and scored 4 points before Utah had their first possession. How is that possible? Timmy drew a foul on his first shot, which he made, then rebounded his own miss. He drew another foul then hit the free throws. Those two quick foul calls, one of them pretty iffy, did not put the crowd in a good mood. Several questionable calls later and the crowd was already fervently booing the officials before the first timeout even occurred. Despite the poor start, the Jazz battled hard and played with a lot more energy than the previous two games. Devin Harris finally showed up for this series as well, scoring 7 early points and ending up with 12 in the 1st quarter. Late in the 1st quarter, Harris hit a 3 that gave the Jazz their first lead since early in Game 1. They lost the lead on the next possession, but still. They trailed 28-30 after 1. Despite playing better, they allowed San Antonio to shoot 60% in the quarter, Utah shot 45% themselves. Getting 3 steals in the opening quarter was encouraging, though.
The game was back and forth during the 2nd quarter. When Millsap missed two consecutive free throws early in the quarter, it dropped the team to a measly 7/14 for the game. This would not improve. The free throw shooting was an issue the entire game. Nearly every trip to the line saw the Jazz hitting 1/2, no matter the player. I think it would have been a very different game had the Jazz shot even the same percentage from the line as the Spurs did: 77%. Back to the game, though, Derrick Favors played very well and had a block shot on Tiago Splitter that ignited the crowd. The half ended on a play that I thought could have been significant at the time and in retrospect, I now think it may have been a turning point for the entire game. With the Jazz leading by 1, the Spurs called a 20-second timeout with only 3 seconds left. They found Bonner in the corner, he hit a 3 to put the Spurs up 52-50. The Jazz looked frustrated and disappointed with themselves as they went to the locker room and I think that one shot sucked the momentum and good vibes they had from playing such a good first half. I might be reading too much into it but the way the 3rd quarter played out, I may be on to something.
Since the game started off on a bad note, I suppose it was only fitting that the 2nd half would to. On the opening possession, Harris missed Hayward on a pass and instead found the front row of the stands. Duncan converted on the other end to put the Spurs up by 4. The Spurs kept a slim lead until the game was tied at 60-60. At this point, the Jazz became unable to find the basket. I don’t know if the Spurs defense stepped up or the offense broke down, all I saw from the stands was ineptitude and an inability to score. Two 3s from SAS put them up 66-60 and with about 3 minutes left it really started to feel like the game was slipping away even though the Spurs were only up by 7. The margin was the same as the 3rd quarter came to a close with San Antonio up 75-68. The offense was Devin Harris, Al Jefferson, and nobody else. Through 3 quarters, Harris had 20, Jefferson had 17, the rest of the team was not producing. Hayward and Millsap were a combined 3/16 at this point.
The 4th quarter started with a 6-0 Spurs run and the crowd completely checked out. I was taking notes during the game and after the Jazz called timeout only 1:20 into the quarter, here is what I wrote:
The Jazz are done. We can all feel it and it seems like the players do too. No energy in this building. We are drained. Showed some fight but Spurs are too good. They’re a class above the Jazz and it’s painfully clear.
Naturally, after slumping into my chair, resigned to the Jazz’s fate, they came out of the timeout re-energized and went on a quick 6-1 run of their own. Alec Burks hit 2/2 free throws, which is sad that it’s actually a noteworthy statistic, and the crowd was right back in the game only 2 minutes after the arena was nearly silent. I’m aware that basketball is a game of runs but it really felt like the fans and team had completely checked out. I am very happy to admit how wrong I was.
With that said, the Jazz still lost the game. However, after that first timeout the team played harder and did not give up. As a fan, I’m really pleased that they hung in there and gave it their best shot. The Spurs are clearly the better team. The free throw shooting was terrible and some players had off nights offensively but as a whole, the Jazz did not play a bad game. Not every loss is attributable to a team playing poorly. Often, it’s simply because one team is better. The Spurs are better. They will win the series, probably in 4. I don’t feel as despondent as I did after Game 2. I liked what I saw from the young guys tonight. Favors, Burks, and Kanter all gave a great effort in a big game. Hayward’s shot was terrible but his defense on Ginobli was terrific, Manu was a non-factor in the game. Millsap struggled with his shot yet had 5 blocks, 11 rebounds, and a steal. The Jazz are missing some pieces but they’re on the right path.
Despite the loss, I was encouraged enough that I actually bought tickets to Game 4 since I don’t have my season tickets for this next one. Going with not just my nephew but his whole family. One (likely) last chance to see the team this season and show support. Hopefully they can avoid the sweep but even if they don’t, the season was a success. It’s not often I can find positivity in being down 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs but here I am, positive. Well, mostly. That free throw shooting (14/26) was a joke.