With their final assignment of the taxing, abbreviated regular season behind them, the Utah Jazz face an even more daunting task.
After their 96-94 win over Portland on Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena, the Jazz spoke respectfully but confidently about their first-round playoff series against the heavily favored Spurs.
San Antonio is the No. 1 seed in the West; Utah is the No. 8 seed.
The gap in depth and experience is even greater, however, and few give the Jazz a chance in the best-of-seven series that starts Sunday at 11 a.m. MDT in San Antonio.
No problem, apparently.
“We’ve proven we can beat the best teams if we do things our way,” said Utah’s Gordon Hayward. “So that’s what we’re going to have to do. …
“It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a challenge. It gives us a chance to shock the world. So we have to be ready for it.”
The Jazz must be more than just ready.
Even though they enter the playoffs on a five-game winning streak, the Jazz face an opponent that had won 20 of 22 games heading into its finale at Golden State.
The Spurs also captured the season series against Utah, 3-1. The only loss came when coach Gregg Popovich decided to rest Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
“They are a very experienced team,” said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. “They are playing very well right now. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. But you know what? … We’ll be ready for it.”
Asked if playing the Spurs will intimidate the young Jazz, Al Jefferson shook his head.
“I doubt playing against a great team will intimidate us,” he said. “Anything can happen in the playoffs once you get there.
“We’re going down there and will play with a lot of energy and confidence. … I just feel like, if we do that, we’ll put ourselves in position to win games.”
The Jazz’s biggest advantage in the series might be the Spurs’ memory.
San Antonio entered the 2011 playoffs as the West’s top seed but was eliminated by Memphis.
After this year’s outstanding regular season, the pressure in this opening-round series against underdog Utah will fall squarely in the Spurs’ shoulders.
“I’m sure they will have their antenna up,” Corbin said. “… There won’t be any letdowns. They are going to be ready, and we have to be ready.
“We have to make sure that we compete because they have the experience of last year. They have a veteran ball club — a very proud group of guys.”
The Jazz capped a 36-30 regular season with a hard-fought win over the Trail Blazers.
As promised, Corbin rested his prime-time players, which resulted in some eye-opening performances by rookie Alec Burks (18 points), Jeremy Evans (13 points, 10 rebounds) and Enes Kanter (12 points, 10 rebounds).
“We knew it was going to be a little bit of a relaxed atmosphere,” Corbin said. “We wanted to make sure we played to get better. Not to embarrass anybody. Not to clown around. And I thought for the most part we did that.”
The Jazz used a 10-0 run late in the fourth quarter to build a 94-88 lead.
They survived a late rally by the Blazers, whose chance to win ended when Wesley Matthews missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“It’s back to work tomorrow,” Corbin said. “We got film to start watching on those guys … and be ready to go on Sunday.”
R Alec Burks scores 18 points in a win over Portland in Utah’s regular-season finale.
• Utah wipes out an 88-84 deficit in the final six minutes to secure its fifth straight victory.
Sunday • Jazz at Spurs, 11 a.m., ESPN
Wednesday • Jazz at Spurs, 5 p.m., TNT
Saturday, May 5 • Spurs at Jazz, 8 p.m., TNT
Monday, May 7 • Spurs at Jazz, TBA
* Wednesday, May 9 • Jazz at Spurs, TBA
* Friday, May 11 • Spurs at Jazz, TBA
* Sunday, May 13 • Jazz at Spurs, TBA