San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich shrugged when asked about Manu Ginobili’s mini-shooting slump.
”I don’t even think about it. He’s Manu,” he said.
True to form, the Spurs’ invaluable sixth man led the charge off the bench when San Antonio needed it most.
He hit consecutive 3-pointers after the Utah Jazz had pulled within 61-58 late in the third quarter in Game 4 of the first-round Western Conference series.
And after the Jazz rallied from 21 points down to get within four in the final minute, Ginobili turned a steal by Tony Parker into a layup that sealed an 87-81 victory and series sweep.
”I wasn’t making many shots, but I wasn’t taking that many either,” said Ginobili, who was 0 for 8 from 3-point range in the first three games but had three Monday and finished with a team-high 17 points. ”I really wasn’t that worried. I was happy that the team was playing as well as we were. We were 3-0 and winning those games with authority.”
The top-seeded Spurs advanced to the conference semifinals against the winner of the Memphis-Los Angeles Clippers series that could go until Sunday.
It was the West’s second first-round sweep as Oklahoma City eliminated defending champion Dallas in four games.
The Spurs won Game 1 by 15 points, Game 2 by 31 and Game 3 by 12, relying on Parker, their MVP candidate, and the deepest bench in the league.
Parker had 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting, Tim Duncan added 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting, and starters Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Danny Green combined for a total of eight points. The Spurs’ bench picked up the slack, outscoring Utah’s reserves 57-10 and finishing with 27 more points than their own starters.
”We’ve been a deeper team this year than we usually are and it sure came in handy tonight,” Popovich said.
Facing elimination, the Jazz started their Big 3 lineup, with Derrick Favors at power forward, Al Jefferson at center and Paul Millsap moving to small forward.
After a slow start, they made a difference, with Favors registering impressive blocks on Parker and Tiago Splitter and dominating the boards.
It was the first game of the series that Utah held an advantage in the paint (34-30). Their trio of bigs combined for 52 points, 39 rebounds and five blocks, with a resurgent Devin Harris added 19 points, seven assists and one crowd-pleasing block of Parker’s fast-break layup attempt.
But the other Jazz players struggled Monday.
Gordon Hayward, who in the last 13 games of the regular season shot 50 percent overall and 49 percent from 3-point range, went 0 for 7 Monday. For the series, he shot just 18 percent (6 of 33).
Utah’s first two players off the bench, Alec Burks and Josh Howard, were a combined 0 for 10 from the field.
Neither team shot particularly well in the physical game, which saw hard fouls, plenty of no-calls, and 12 blocked shots.
In the end, the Jazz refused to quit.
Jefferson hit 5 of 6 shots in the fourth quarter for 10 of his team-high 26 points, Favors and NBA D-League call-up Blake Ahearn both had steals and Millsap dominated the boards – with eight of his playoff career-high 19 rebounds in the final quarter.
”Some people thought it was over and the Jazz ran it right at us,” Popovich said of the Jazz chipping away at the 21-point lead. ”They don’t quit. They are a class team and a class organization and (coach) Ty (Corbin) is continuing that.”
Corbin helped get the Jazz to this point after being thrust into a chaotic situation last February when Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan abruptly quit and the team traded superstar point guard Deron Williams two weeks later.
Then, in his first full season as coach, he had a lockout-shortened training camp to try to pull the pieces together.
While he admitted a bout of nerves before Game 1, Corbin settled in.
”We’ve shown when things are bad, we are going to continue to fight,” Corbin said. ”Any time you have a game against us, you are going to know you have been in a fight.”
The Spurs acknowledged as much, with Stephen Jackson calling Monday’s game perhaps the most physical he has endured.
Favors helped ensured that.
He had two blocks and two steals to go along with his 16 points and 10 rebounds.
”It was a good experience, going out there playing against the Spurs,” said Favors, who was acquired along with Harris in the blockbuster trade that sent Williams to New Jersey last year. ”It was a challenge. I thought I stepped up to the plate.”
The series was a learning experience for all Jazz players, what with four of them 22 or younger and the entire team having played half as many playoff games than the Spurs.
”The Spurs are a very good team. We’re a very young team,” Harris said. ”But any experience in the playoffs for our young guys is a good thing. … We definitely learned some things from a team like the Spurs, the way they play together, the way they stay poised in the fourth quarter, how they really execute. They’ve won four championships for a reason.”
The Spurs are seeking their fifth NBA title, having won in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, going through the Jazz for the last of the championships.
After being knocked out by Memphis in the first round last season, they are looking to make amends, and now have the momentum of a 14-game winning streak.
While the Spurs may have a week to rest before playing their next game, the Jazz will be clearing out their lockers Tuesday – some perhaps for good. Raja Bell has another year left on his contract, but after opening the year as a starter, did not play a minute in postseason.
The Jazz also have to decide if they can keep all of their big men.
Notes: The Jazz have lost eight straight playoff games as they were swept by the Lakers in the second round two years ago. It was only the second first-round sweep in Jazz history, the other coming in 1989. … San Antonio’s bench outscored Utah’s 33-4 in the first half, with DeJuan Blair, Stephen Neal and Jackson getting six points apiece while Ginobili, Matt Bonner and Splitter had five each. … The Spurs shot 56 percent or better in the first quarter of the first three games, averaging 28.7 points. But they shot just 39.1 percent in the opening quarter of Game 4 and scored just 22 points. … Utah lost despite a 57-43 advantage on the boards.