With Kawhi Leonard seamlessly getting back in the mix, the San Antonio Spurs will try to win more than two straight games for the first time since shortly before his extended absence.
A visit from lowly Utah on Sunday night would appear to aid the Spurs, particularly given their home dominance in the series, but the Jazz have shown some defensive improvement recently.
Leonard ended a 15-game absence in style by scoring a team-best 20 points in a 110-96 victory over Portland on Friday. Averaging a team-leading 15.4 points, Leonard had missed a total of 17 contests since tearing a ligament in his right hand after a failed dunk attempt in a 100-96 loss at Utah on Dec. 9.
"A team feeds off of each other and he has been an obvious important part of how we do things. Everything fits better together," coach Gregg Popovich said. "He adds so much to us in a lot of different ways. … In subtle ways and obvious ways. It is a fine performance for somebody who has sat out for the last 30 days."
The Spurs (25-16) are 9-9 without Leonard, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since he was a regular part of the rotation during an eight-game winning streak which ended Dec. 3. They seem to have a prime opportunity to earn a third consecutive victory Sunday considering Utah (14-26), owner of the Western Conference’s third-worst record, has lost nine straight and 32 of 34 in San Antonio, including the playoffs.
The Jazz have been ripped for an average of 110.4 points during that nine-game skid at the AT&T Center but enter this visit playing well defensively. They’re allowing an average of 93.9 points on 43.3 percent shooting in their last 15 games, compared to 102.3 points and 48.3 percent in their first 25 under coach Quin Snyder.
The only team to score 100 against them in the past five games was league-best Golden State, the NBA’s highest-scoring team. Utah has averaged 10.6 steals in those five games, nearly four above its season average.
"We’re playing a lot better defensively," top scorer Gordon Hayward told the team’s official website. "And because we’re playing better defensively we get some buckets in transition, we don’t have to walk the ball up the court and it makes things a little bit easier. So, I think we’re just getting better as a team."
Hayward’s 31 points helped the Jazz end a three-game losing streak Friday, topping the Los Angeles Lakers 94-85, while Trey Burke and Derrick Favors continued their recent strong play.
Burke, who had 20 points, is averaging 19.3 in his last six games after scoring 11.7 per contest through his first 33. Favors, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds, is averaging 20.7 points and 10.2 boards in his past six.
Favors had a team-best 21 points against San Antonio in December as the Jazz snapped a five-game skid in the series, though the Spurs didn’t have Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter or Patty Mills.
San Antonio’s projected starting lineup of Parker, Leonard, Splitter, Tim Duncan and Danny Green played together once – for eight minutes on Nov. 5 – before Friday’s game.
Utah hasn’t claimed consecutive victories over San Antonio since a four-game season sweep in 2009-10.
Duncan had 23 points and 14 rebounds versus Utah last month. Since the beginning of 2012-13, Duncan has averaged 18.8 points and 12.1 boards against the Jazz while Parker has added 21.1 points and 7.3 assists.