SAN ANTONIO -- It didn't matter who you ran into courtside awaiting Sunday's tip-off. Coaches, players, big-name analysts ... whoever. The same warning came from pretty much everyone.
Jazz 'don't show up' in Game 1
Don't underestimate Utah.
As in: Don't presume that the unproven Utah Jazz won't be able to bang and hang with seasoned San Antonio on the grand stage of the Western Conference finals, not even after what the Spurs did to Phoenix.
So what ends up happening in Game 1 of the rest of our lives?
Utah underestimates Utah.
At least that's how it looked, most of all to coach Jerry Sloan. The Jazz sure seemed to be transmitting a happy-to-be-here vibe until halfway through the fourth quarter. "At halftime, I told our players, 'If you are intimidated and you don't want to go out there and compete, then stay in the locker room,'" Sloan said. "That's the only thing I know to tell them."
It's not exactly breaking news when Sloan lights into his guys, true, but this soon? After Utah won a Game 7 in Houston and needed only five games to take out the rugged bunch from Golden State that bounced Dallas, Sloan never imagined he'd have to bust out one of his go-to speeches just two quarters into this series.
Not that he had much choice. The Spurs had Utah reeling with their first big swing, schooling the Jazz for three quarters-plus until the visitors' rally in the final five minutes made San Antonio's 108-100 triumph look a lot more respectable for Utah than it felt.
"We are not a young team anymore," said Jazz guard Deron Williams. "There is no excuse. We got this far, so obviously we can compete."
Time will tell whether the fourth-quarter response -- when Williams rang up 18 of his 34 points, to go with nine assists and seven boards, and set himself apart from everyone else in light blue -- convinces Utah in time for Tuesday's Game 2.
If not, you can expect to hear even more sadness and longing for what we had in Spurs vs. Suns.
Energy. Drama. Buzz. The Spurs' ruthlessness quickly drained all of that out of this one.
There's a reason the Spurs shot 66 percent from the floor in the first half in amassing an 18-point lead. They simply went wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without any of Utah's renowned physicality to impede them. It was a layup-fest, basically.
The best example: Tony Parker bouncing a pass right between the legs of Mehmet Okur near midcourt -- a nutmeg that his footballing countryman and pal Thierry Henry would have been proud to claim as his own -- to send Manu Ginobili in for a one-on-none fast break.
San Antonio's defense, meanwhile, had an even bigger impact. Even the impressive Williams was hushed in the first half by the nagging bump-and-grind presence of Bruce Bowen, while Carlos Boozer walked into Sloan's blistering lecture with more fouls than baskets.
Two to one.
Fabricio Oberto, Francisco Elson, Robert Horry and a certain Tim Duncan took turns shadowing Boozer, with San Antonio's team scheme of helpers disrupting Utah's pick-and-roll game more than anyone else does ... which is exactly what happened to Phoenix. As Duncan noted, San Antonio was making Boozer take "shots outside his arsenal" until Boozer, too, finally found a bit of a groove in the fourth quarter.
It's hard to be exactly sure if Utah figured out anything at the end, given that fatigue after a quick turnaround from the Phoenix series and the ease with which it was winning probably impacted San Antonio's finish. The Jazz also made an unlikely 10 straight shots in one stretch ... while San Antonio missed nine free throws in the fourth quarter. It's thus no stretch to suggest that the Spurs' meek finish could just as easily help them refocus for Game 2 more than it helps the Jazz, with more Bowen on Williams sure to be part of San Antonio's plan.
"We were too satisfied with the first half, I guess," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who figures to have a few choice words saved up for his guys after giving them Monday off to recuperate.
During his pregame press briefing, Sloan was actually guilty himself of making Utah's upset dreams sound like a fantasy. When told of Pop's recent disclosure that the Spurs' long-range goal was always emulating the unerringly consistent execution of Utah's Stockton-to-Malone teams, Sloan said: "They are better than we are."
But you figure that was more respectful coachspeak than what he honestly expected to see on the floor, even with Utah carrying five days' worth of rust since dusting Golden State. Like a lot of us, Sloan spent much of his Sunday waiting for the determined bangers who, if nothing else, were supposed to swing back at the heavy favorites. Especially since they should be playing somewhat free of pressure against the mighty Spurs.
The most telling illustration of Sloan's frustration: Rafael Araujo was summoned out of hibernation to play nearly nine minutes in the final period in place of the ineffective Okur.
"We were shaking our heads at each other," Sloan said. "If one guy made a mistake, it was somebody else's fault. That's part of what a young team has to learn. We have to stay together. ... I didn't think we did that. We were looking for excuses.
"That, again, is experience. I hate to keep talking [about experience] -- and hopefully this is the last time I mention it because we've played two series now -- [but] I don't want to hear any more about being young. You either grow up and become a better player or you take the easy route out. We will see who [we] are and go from there."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Spurs will again put their brand on the West unless the Jazz can find a way to win one in San Antonio (plus three in Salt Lake City).
Marc Stein blogs from San Antonio on the dominant play of the Spurs' threesome of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan:
Manu Ginobili has found a serious groove lately, making it a bit hard to believe that all of San Antonio was so worried about him just over a week ago.
Manu managed just 14 points in the Spurs' first two games in Phoenix against the frustrating coverage of Raja Bell. Yet he wound up averaging 23.3 points over the final four games against the Suns and came off the bench to contribute a smooth 23 points and 10 assists in this opener, backing up Duncan's 27 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and Parker's 21 points.
Those three easily would have cracked the 80-point barrier if they hadn't conspired to miss a combined 12 free throws. But let's face it. If all three of them can keep this going -- and, in fact, Parker should be able to play a lot better given his six turnovers against six assists and Deron Williams' big finish -- it doesn't really matter how Utah counters.
The Spurs got a lot of postgame questions about the 38 points they surrendered to Utah in the fourth quarter and what impact fatigue played in that fade, but as an increasingly brash Duncan saw fit to remind his media audience: "We played good enough, by the way."
TrueHoop's stathead contest has moved into Round 3, the conference finals, in a dead heat.
Here's what they're saying about the East finals:
Kevin Pelton, who writes for the SuperSonics' official Web site, says, "Two series into the playoffs, I'm still not sure how much we've learned about the Cavaliers. The level of difficulty goes way up against the Pistons, who have played very good basketball this postseason."
Similarly, ProTrade's Jeffrey Ma hasn't seen enough to trust Cleveland in pressure situations: "Detroit brings out the best in Cleveland, and I see this series being close," he explains, "but the Pistons seem to know how to turn it on in the playoffs and the lack of experience on the Cavaliers scares me if this series goes to seven."
Knickerblogger Mike Kurylo says Detroit gets the nod because Cleveland's offense is unreliable: "The Cavs ranked 19th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, and their inconsistent offense will be their undoing. Take Game 5 against the Nets for example. Up three games to one, they have a chance to close out the game at home and manage only 72 points."
"It's real simple," explains ESPN's John Hollinger. "Unless LBJ goes bananas, the Pistons have too many weapons."
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
San Antonio's Manu Ginobili broke free and put a number or two on the Jazz in Game 1:
23 points and 10 assists, to be precise.
Quote of the Day:
-- Royce Webb
Notes from Game 1 of the Western Conference finals:
• San Antonio had as many baskets in the second quarter (12) as the Jazz had through two quarters.
• Utah made its first 12 free throws, then Jarron Collins missed a pair.
• The Spurs missed their first five shots, then finally got a basket on a goaltending. They didn't actually put the ball through the hoop until a basket by Tim Duncan more than five minutes into the game.
• This was postseason win No. 85 for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, leaving him one behind fifth place in the NBA record book. Currently in fifth: Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
-- Associated Press
Sunday night, ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski asked San Antonio forward Robert Horry about the incident that got him suspended for Games 5 and 6 in the Spurs-Suns series -- the hard foul against Steve Nash.
Horry expressed no regrets:
"You know what?" Horry said. "If I had the situation to do all over again I would still [do it]. That's just the way I'm programmed. You go over there and foul, and you foul them hard.
"The only thing I wish I could have changed is that it wouldn't have been that close to the scorer's table.
"Other than that, I'm an old-fashioned player, an old-school player who will foul you and foul you hard."
Since the turn of the century, the Spurs have dominated the Utah Jazz in San Antonio.
In fact, the Spurs are a perfect 17-0 against Utah at home since March 1, 1999.
The Spurs also have put together a 17-0 streak against the Warriors during the same period of time.
-- Michael E. Jackson, ESPN Research