SALT LAKE CITY — Bigs Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, even Enes Kanter, gave the Utah Jazz a large advantage, especially offensively, for most of the season.
The interior game has been a staple of success for the surprise playoff team. Millsap and Devin Harris even referred to their prowess in the paint as being the squad's "bread and butter."
An interesting description, considering the Jazz seem to have gone on a low-carb/fat-free diet in two playoff losses.
And, yes, that makes the San Antonio Spurs the Richard Simmons of this metaphor. (OK, maybe Bob Harper.)
The Jazz's ability (or inability) to thrive inside Saturday night against the restricting Spurs will likely determine whether or not Utah can be competitive in, let alone win, Game 3 of a one-sided first-round series.
"Everybody know they got to step up and try to stay alive. Game 3 is a very important game," Jefferson said at practice. "Getting down 3-0 is going to be really difficult, so this is a very important game. Everybody wants to take the challenge."
Utah executed well down the stretch of the season, when it won seven of nine games to earn its way into the postseason. But the Jazz have struggled to execute their game plan — from Big Al in the paint, to Harris at the point, to the wings — and are in an 0-2 hole going into this 8 p.m. TNT-televised game.
"We've got to play better," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We talked about (player) rotations and changing lineups. Really, without playing better it's difficult to see, and that's all across the board. We all have to play better."
Nowhere better to start than in the middle where the Jazz were outplayed and outscored 120-80 in their blowout losses in San Antonio.
"San Antonio know our plays better than we do," Jefferson said.
"We've got to do something different," Millsap said. "They're clogging the lane up so much that we can't even get anything at the basket. If we knock down a few jump shots, open it up, make them adjust it a little bit, we'll be fine."
Getting outside help could help unclog things for Jefferson, Millsap and Favors, but Corbin has more on his checklist.
Overall execution, including setting solid screens and making hard cuts, is vital.
It's also essential that passers get Jefferson the ball deeper in the paint. The Spurs, especially future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, have succeeded in pushing Big Al further off the block than the Jazz prefer. San Antonio has effectively double-teamed Jefferson and confused him with different defensive looks.
On Saturday night, Jefferson has a simple mission inside: "Stand my spot. Trust my teammates to get me the ball."
Big Al said the Jazz need to win as a team because they don't have a superstar, but Utah is in desperate need of more offensive production from its regular season leading scorer and recent Western Conference player of the week recipient.
Jefferson has only averaged 13 points (and 6.5 boards) after topping the team with 19.2 ppg in 2011-12.
"I know I can be better than what I've been," a soft-spoken Jefferson said. "I'm just a little more frustrated, too, with everything that's been going on, the way we've been playing. Things are kind of unraveling as a team."
Asked for further clarification on that unraveling comment, Jefferson said, "I just feel like when things start going bad, we just get out of what we supposed to do instead of sticking with it. We just get out of it and get frustrated."
That was especially the case in Wednesday's 114-83 embarrassment, when Favors left the game in the second quarter and the Spurs immediately went on a 20-0 run. The 6-foot-10 Favors has only played an average of 23.5 minutes this series, but he's the team's leading rebounder (8.5 per game) and has been a defensive stopper.
In two games, the Jazz outscored the Spurs by six points with Favors on the court, according to NBA.com. That put them at a minus-51 when he watched from the bench.
Corbin credited Favors for playing well, and the second-year coach mentioned matchups, rotations and game flow when asked why his second-year big hasn't seen additional time.
"Derrick should play more. I've got to find a way to get him more minutes on the floor," Corbin said. "We've got to make sure we're giving ourselves chances to win and we need everybody to play better, and with him on the floor, we are better."
Jefferson is hopeful that means the Jazz's Big Three — Big Al, Millsap and Favors — will assemble to give Utah a chance to capitalize on that presumed size advantage.
"(Our) big lineup could hurt them," Jefferson said, "if we get into it earlier in the game instead of doing it when already down."
Harris insisted the Jazz perimeter players also have to do their job to help the inside guys do theirs against the likes of Duncan, Boris Diaw, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter, who've helped stymie Utah.
"It's all of us. We have to re-establish our interior game. We've got to open up the perimeter players," Harris said. "We've been an inside-and-out team all year long. That's our bread and butter. That's what we have to focus on."
All the better that this game will be played far, far away from the Alamo. The Jazz were 25-8 at home, although one loss was to the Spurs. Still, Utah needs all the extra help it can get.
"It's our chance to impose our will on them," Harris said. "We've played better at home. We've done it all season long, and now we've got to show it."
The Jazz have not conceded despite the rough start, Corbin said. Jefferson echoed his coach, saying the Jazz believe if they stick together like they did during the season, they can challenge the Spurs.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride for us all year. We've been through it," Jefferson said. "We always find a way to bounce back. We've got one more bounce back in us."
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