SALT LAKE CITY — Whether it’s true or not, NBA fans, players and pundits regularly declare the San Antonio Spurs to be a team that “plays the right way.”
If playing the right way means owning the NBA’s best record, the Spurs came into Wednesday’s ESPN-televised game with the Jazz doing just that.
Winners of five in a row and 10 of their last 12, the Spurs rolled into EnergySolutions Arena riding high and oozing confidence. But the Jazz pushed them hard, rallying from an early 10-point deficit to take a halftime lead. From there Utah’s players continued to scrap and fight on each possession, executing a gameplan that called for wearing down Spurs’ All-Star power forward Tim Duncan and using their quickness to test San Antonio’s stamina.
The plan worked beautifully and the Jazz came away with a 99-96 win thanks to Mo Williams’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
The Jazz fell behind 26-16 in the first quarter but rallied to take a 36-35 lead with 6:29 left before halftime. Utah shot a sizzling 61 percent from the field and outscored the Spurs 31-16 in the second.
The Jazz went into halftime leading 53-44.
San Antonio bounced back to outscore the Jazz 27-18 in the third, holding Utah’s shooters to just 35 percent from the field.
The game boiled down to the final quarter, which meant the Jazz’s home crowd was infused with energy down the stretch.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap each scored game-tying baskets in the final minutes and Williams hit a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Millsap finished with a game-high 24 points and Jefferson added 21.
Duncan and Tony Parker had 22 apiece for the Spurs (18-5).
When it comes to playing San Antonio, the Jazz (13-10) put out an odd mix of reverence for the Spurs’ play-the-right-way attitude coupled with an intense desire to measure themselves against one of the NBA’s best teams.
Outside of beating them four times during the 2009-10 season, the Jazz haven’t had much luck against the Spurs. Going into Wednesday’s game they’d lost 11 of the last 12 meetings, which includes a four-game sweep in last season’s playoffs.
“They’ve figured the formula out,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
At Tuesday’s practice session, at Wednesday’s morning shootaround and before the game Corbin and his players spoke of the Spurs with great admiration and respect.
“They play well at home and on the road, so it doesn’t really matter where they play,” Corbin said.
The Spurs came in with not only the league’s best overall record, but its best road record, too: 11-2.
Williams’ assessment of the Spurs system included a well-used phrase.
“They’ve got a great organization and a great coach. They just do everything the right way,” he said. “They play the right way. They’ve got a group that’s been together a long time.”
“It’s difficult for everybody else but it’s simple basketball for them,” Paul Millsap said. “That’s the beauty of it, nothing they’re doing is really spectacular. Everything they’re doing is simple basketball plays and making the right decisions, making the right plays.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich bristled at a question about why and how his team “plays the right way.”
“I hate that question,” he said. “It’s such a trite question. The answer is even more trite, so I’m just gonna beg off. Ask somebody smarter.”
Perhaps the question should have been asked to Corbin because on Wednesday, he looked like a genius.