By Paul Garcia and Michael De Leon
The San Antonio Spurs entered tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz with little to prove. They had locked up the Western Conference and still hold the number one seed in the playoffs, keeping the Chicago Bulls at arms-length away.
While some teams will cruise through the final regular season games, the Spurs saw it as an opportunity.
“I think Pop is trying to do exactly what he’s doing right now. He’s trying to get us good minutes,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “We’re trying to win these games obviously, but we’re trying to play the right amount of minutes and make sure everyone’s healthy and fresh.”
After two days off, the Spurs started the game rusty with four empty trips up the floor. But it didn’t take long after for the Spurs to get started.
Both teams traded buckets early and tied the game with 10 points apiece midway through the first quarter.
Richard Jefferson and Manu Ginobili one-upped the efforts by Al Jefferson and Devin Harris, ending the quarter up 25-22.
As has been the case all season, how the Spurs defend in the post against some of the league’s better bigs is a determining factor in the game more times than not.
Their chances were looking bleak early with Al Jeffferson, Jeremy Evans and Derrick Favors getting to the rim at will. But while the Jazz relied on their strength on the inside, the Spurs answered back with their strength, outside shooting.
Gary Neal entered the game and made quick work of the Jazz perimeter defense, knocking down two three-pointers and a pair of jumpers for 10 points in 14 minutes.
The Spurs put on a show to close out the first half with a highlight dunk by George Hill and an alley-oop dunk by Jefferson, which sent the Jazz to their locker room down 11.
Both teams came out firing out of halftime as the Spurs scored 10 points early and the Jazz connected on nine points within the first three minutes.
With 6:41 remaining in the third, Matt Bonner hit a three pointer to extend the Spurs’ lead 74 to 59.
Richard Jefferson continued his long range shooting by making a three and Tim Duncan followed with a simple hook shot. George Hill then fed Duncan a layup for a 83 to 66 lead, the Spurs largest of the ball game.
With 4:10 remaining in the third quarter, Duncan was taken out of the game; he would not return the rest of the way.
To end the quarter, Tiago Splitter rebounded a Hill missed three for the put back at the buzzer. The Spurs put up 32 points while the Jazz scored 30, which is yet another 30 plus point third quarter, part of a recent pattern of scoring plus-30 points in the third quarter.
At the end of the third quarter, the Spurs led 89 to 76.
Splitter showed some excellent footwork on Favors as he made Favors dance, and then got the foul call. The Spurs led 91 to 78 with 9:30 remaining in the ball game.
With 8:25 remaining, Earl Watson went on a 5-0 run all on his own to cut the Spurs lead to six (91-85), which was the closest the Jazz would get the rest of the game.
Jefferson connected on his fourth three-pointer with 5:12 remaining to score his team-leading 20th point and extended the Spurs’ lead back to 10 points.
“Tonight I was able to get a few up because of the way Utah played and thank God they went in,” Jefferson said after the game.
Splitter and Al Jefferson went on a stretch of scoring consecutive baskets. At the end of the stretch Splitter won the battle at six points to Jefferson’s four points.
“Tiago, just that blue collar, steel worker sort of attitude,” Popovich said. “It’s like he’s right out of the steel mill, been working there all his life and he knows what it’s like to work. He’s unbelievable.”
When the buzzer sounded, the Spurs had clinched victory number 61 on the season, winning 111 to 102. Splitter had eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter. Richard Jefferson led the team with his first 20 point game since November.
The Spurs will play in Los Angeles on Tuesday night against the struggling Lakers, who are on a four-game losing streak.
• This victory matches the Spurs’ best record through 80 games in franchise history.
• For the sixth time this season, the Spurs had seven players score in double figures.
• The Spurs 36-5 home record is the second best in franchise history.