After an impressive 114-104 win over the Utah Jazz at home on Sunday night, San Antonio Spurs head coach Greg Popovich elected to travel without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan for the second of a home-and-home series on Monday. When asked about his decision to keep the Big Three away, Popovich told reporters the team is just "trying to survive" the condensed season and that he made the decision "when the schedule came out." A re-worked starting five of Patrick Mills, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, DeJuan Blair and Boris Diaw gave the Jazz trouble for three quarters and silenced the Utah crowd more than once, but Utah hit its stride in the nick of time with a late 12-4 run to close out a 91-84 victory.
After engineering an 11-game winning streak and shooting to the top of the Western Conference standings, you can say just about anything with impunity. When reporters asked for points of strategy in the rematch before tip, Pop shot off an honest and direct response that Brian Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune relayed succinctly:
Asked "keys to the game" for second consecutive contest vs. Jazz, Popovich didn't hold back. Said it was BS. "Make up what you want."— Brian T. Smith (@tribjazz) April 9, 2012
It turned out to be anything but an easy game for Tyrone Corbin's crew, despite very serious implications in the playoff race. The action seesawed through three quarters, and 10 lead changes kept the Utah crowd on the edge of its seats. DeJuan Blair and Al Jefferson both burst from the starting gate with 11 and eight points (respectively) in the first quarter, but they slowed considerably for the remainder of the night -- Blair finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, while Jefferson notched 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Things turned a bit sloppy in the second and third periods, and turnovers overshadowed assists for both teams during that span, but solid play from Matt Bonner, Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter helped the Spurs take a 68-64 lead into the final period. In fact, that Spurs trio outscored any other such San Antonio combination on the night and ultimately earned more minutes than S-Jax (five points on 2-13 shooting, three turnovers), Patty Mills (nine points on 10 shots) and Boris Diaw (five points, four fouls, three rebounds). Bonner sank a pair of threes on his way to 10 points, while Splitter and Neal added a presence inside and out as they tied for the team-high with 14 points each.
The star of the night emerged in the second half of the game. After stumbling to four points on 1-5 shooting in his first 18 minutes of action, Jazz point guard Devin Harris exploded for 21 points after the intermission. In the third quarter he attacked the edges of the defense and kept his team within striking distance with nine points, but Harris really made his mark when Utah needed him most. The former Wisconsin Badger entered the game with 6:03 remaining and a 70-75 deficit, at a point when the crowd fell silent and fear of a crippling loss felt all too real. Then the red-hot guard imposed his will. He quickly contributed a layup, a pair of free throws, two stop-and-pop threes and another free throw for 11 consecutive points that flipped the script and put the Jazz up 84-80 at the 2:23 mark. From there, Paul Millsap calmly dropped in a jumper and aggressively stuffed a put-back dunk on a Jefferson miss to seal the deal at 91-84.
The fourth quarter didn't go so well for the Spurs' B-team. It shot 26.1 percent and 2-10 from beyond the arc, including painful 0-4s from Stephen Jackson and Danny Green, as the Jazz won the period 27-16 and stole a must-win at the last moment. To his credit, Popovich also refused to mince his words after the game:
"The big difference in the game, like with a lot of NBA games down the stretch, is you have got to make shots, and Devin came down and knocked down two in transition in a row. And on the other end we couldn't throw it in the ocean."
-- Spurs coach Popovich on the difference in the fourth quarter. (via NBA.com)
Utah's win snapped a six-game losing streak against San Antonio and prevented the Jazz from losing any ground to the Suns and Nuggets. It is still 1.5 games behind Denver for the No. 8 seed. As for San Antonio, it fell to the No. 2 seed in the West as the Oklahoma City Thunder stomped the Milwaukee Bucks, 109-89.
In other important news, the Utah Jazz Bear got ambushed with silly string, which seems a lot more enjoyable with a win in hand:
For all of Monday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.