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Geographically, the Jazz are right where they were five years ago, enjoying the high point of the franchise’s modern era.
Current coach Tyrone Corbin was among Jerry Sloan’s assistants in 2007, when the Jazz of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer made their first — and longest, as it turned out — playoff run, eventually losing to San Antonio in five games in the Western Conference finals. That sure seemed like the start of something, but the ultimate ending of the Williams-Boozer partnership was unfulfilled promise.
While this meeting with San Antonio is unlikely to produce a different outcome, the Jazz’s future prospects appear more inviting. What matters is how much playing the Spurs helps the Jazz later, even if it hurts them now.
Just so you know, Corbin said this humbly, respectfully and for the right reasons: He really likes his team’s playoff matchup.
If playoff experience is the franchise’s stated purpose this season, then the Jazz have made a very good choice of pairings — not necessarily in the interest of lasting a long time, but certainly for educational reasons.
"I don’t know if there’s a better opponent you can learn from," Corbin said.
He also said, "These guys are going to try and bury us."
That’s why, even while facing the most staggering odds of any underdog in these NBA playoffs, the No. 8-seeded Jazz will benefit from facing the Spurs in the series that starts Sunday at the AT&T Center. The Jazz will get the very best shot from a San Antonio team that remembers being upset by Memphis as a No. 1 seed last season and is wonderfully assembled and well-coached.
Whether this series serves to validate the Jazz’s building project or just becomes sobering evidence of how far they still have to go, it can only do them a lot of good to judge themselves against the Spurs.
So, who stands to gain the most from the experience? Corbin himself.
As a head coach in his first playoff series, Corbin could not have picked a tougher assignment. The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich has coached 181 playoff games to Corbin’s zero — to say nothing of winning four NBA championships and posting a 108-73 (.597) postseason record.
Consider that Sloan is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with 98 playoff wins — and a losing record. That gives some perspective to Popovich’s achievements.
And you know what? This is perfect for Corbin. If he’s going to learn how to coach in the playoffs, where the adjustments have to come immediately, not just from one game to the next, why not go against the best in the league?
Going into April, I wrote that Corbin’s season would be judged a success if he could follow through and take this team into the playoffs. I’ll stick with that measurement, applauding him for a 21-12 finish and a 36-30 record that represents a huge climb from his 8-20 mark after replacing Sloan last season. But more growth is necessary for him in this job, and he knows it.
Asked about this opportunity for him and his staff to benefit as much as his young players from the playoff experience, Corbin said, "Absolutely … it’s the first dance for us also."
Corbin added, "It’s going to be a different intensity, it’s going to be a different approach, because it’s the same opponent four [games] in a row. So you have to be sure you’re paying attention to everything that’s going on — the changes you can make, the tweaks that we have to make during the game, to give ourselves a chance to win."
So here in San Antonio, where Corbin’s NBA career began as a rookie in 1985, playing in the HemisFair Arena that’s since been demolished, Corbin will launch another phase Sunday. So will his team.
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