Before last year's playoff's, NBA.com released their new tool for statistical analysis, called NBA StatsCube. Since renamed to NBA Advanced Stats (but let's be honest, StatsCube is a way cooler name), the tool allows us to look at matchups at a glance: between teams, players, lineups, etc. Let's use this tool to see what we can learn about the upcoming Spurs v. Jazz matchup, and find out what the Jazz need to do when playing the Spurs to succeed.
Looking at this page, it's interesting to see that the Spurs, rather than inhibiting all aspects of the Jazz' performance, actually only make greater than a 10% impact (the red bars) in 2 categories: assists and 3 point percentage. Against the Spurs so far this season, the Jazz have scored only 1 fewer point than they normally do, get the same amount of rebounds, actually shoot 1 more 3, shoot 2 more free throws, and do only 0.8 points worse per 100 possessions as a team. Against a team as good as the Spurs, and even though they were shorthanded in one of the meetings, this is fairly significant.
Given the Spurs defensive system, this makes sense; the Spurs are all about rotating and preventing efficient offensive opportunities. Their rotations make the easy buckets that result in assists more difficult to achieve. Furthermore, they understand that the 3 point shot is really efficient, so they close out around the 3 point line extremely well. As a result, the Jazz' OffRTG drops 5.3 points when playing San Antonio.
Interestingly, the Jazz seem to defend the Spurs better than most teams. This is undoubtedly affected by the 84 point performance by the Spurs without playing with their big 3, but against the Jazz, the Spurs average 1 fewer point, 2 fewer rebounds, 2 fewer assists, and a lower 4 point lower OffRTG. Indeed, the only thing that the Spurs are >10% better at is the number of free throws they attempt. While we may be tempted to blame the referees for this discrepancy, it's also worth pointing out that the Jazz foul a lot. It may be impossible to act on, but as always, the Jazz would be well served to stop fouling. We're also not helped by the fact that they're inexplicably 5% better free throw shooters against us than when they play other teams.
This is how the Jazz stack up offensively playing against the Spurs, compared to against the team average. As you can see, the percentages are comparable across the board, except for in the corner 3 zone, where the Jazz have only had 8 attempts. As a Jazz fan, this is encouraging: the Spurs defense doesn't seem to make a significant dent in the success of our shots. That may change as they throw all of their players at us, though.
This is also encouraging, as a Jazz fan. The Jazz' big defense seems to significantly slow the success rates of the San Antonio bigs at the rim. However, mid-range and out seems to provide the Jazz with some trouble, especially at the outside 3 range. The above-the-break 3 success by the Spurs may be the result of the pick-and-pops the Spurs run with Bonner: David Locke pointed out today that the Spurs are 52%(!) from three on pick plays on the season (from Synergy). In order to slow the Spurs, the Jazz will want to focus on stopping that play. The inside defense should work itself out.
That being said, these are encouraging statistics: the Jazz and Spurs may not be as far apart as some prognosticators think. The Spurs definitely look to be the better team, but the Jazz have shown an ability to hang with the Spurs on the season, and even slow down their attack inside. In order for the Jazz to have a chance, they must slow down on the fouls and get out on pick-and-pop 3 point opportunities. If that occurs, this match up will be much closer than anyone anticipates.