SAN ANTONIO - As much as the individual talents of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have frustrated the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals, the San Antonio Spurs have benefited from something else: their collective experience.
The Spurs are the oldest team in the league, featuring a roster full of players who've won championships or been part of long postseason runs. The calmness, confidence and wisdom gained along the way has been put to good use against the novice Jazz, helping San Antonio build a 3-1 series lead going into Game 5 tonight. Consider the evidence.
In Games 1 and 2, San Antonio built big leads, then prevented Utah from getting close until it was way too late. The Jazz finally clicked when they went home for Game 3 and the Spurs were wise enough to realize it wasn't their night. Rather than go all out for a rally that might've made the final score look good - as Utah did late in the first two games - San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich let backups finish what became a 26-point loss.
The best example, though, was Game 4 on Monday night.
Neither team was playing great, but both were playing hard. The Spurs led by only one point early in the fourth quarter when a foul was called on the Jazz. Then another. And another. More fouls and some technicals followed. Utah's fans lost their composure, too, going from anti-official chants to throwing things on the court.
San Antonio handled it all just fine, mainly by making free throws and not doing anything silly. As a reward, the Spurs are one win away from heading to the NBA finals for the third time in five years.
''The playoffs are a physical time,'' Popovich said Tuesday. ''Things happen and you move on.''
Series clinchers, also known as ''closeout'' games, are considered the toughest to win, but San Antonio players certainly know the drill.
The Spurs are 12-4 in closeout games since Duncan, Parker and Ginobili teamed up in 2003. Nine of the wins came on their first chance to end a series, including against Denver and Phoenix this postseason.
Yet within those numbers lies a nugget of hope for Utah. All four of San Antonio's losses have come at home.
Well, that would be good news for the Jazz if they hadn't lost 18 straight games in San Antonio. Utah's skid dates to February 1999, so long ago that Karl Malone and John Stockton had four more years together and the David Robinson-led Spurs were not only still playing in the Alamodome, it was 18 months before ground was broken on their current arena.
Another concern for Utah is that point guard Deron Williams received treatment for a sprained ankle Tuesday. He's expected to play Game 5, but also is getting over a stomach ailment that he said cost him eight pounds over the weekend.
Still, San Antonio is bracing for another challenge. Just to get this far, the Jazz had to shake off a season-ending 3-6 slump, then an 0-2 deficit in the first round. So they're not likely to give up now.
''We don't in any way think we are just going to walk in our building and take these guys out,'' Duncan said. ''They have shown they can play with us. They have shown that they are very physical.''
Utah is likely going through a rite of passage, like Miami's Dwyane Wade endured before his breakthrough last year and, most famously, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls faced in getting past the Bad Boy-era Detroit Pistons.
The Jazz are somewhat fortunate to have experienced all that they have this postseason. Sure, they earned it by beating the Rockets in seven games and Golden State in five, but the Warriors helped by eliminating the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Whether Utah might've beaten Dallas is irrelevant; the bottom line is that the Jazz are gaining valuable experience - there's that word again - that should help in 2008 and beyond.
After all, Carlos Boozer is 25 and Williams is 22, so the pieces are in place for Utah's revival to continue.
The biggest problem for the Jazz this series is that Williams (29.5 points per game) and Boozer (24.5) aren't getting enough help. Utah's third-highest scorer is Andrei Kirilenko at a measly 8.3 points per game.
''I think we're playing a little bit weaker than we did the first two rounds. Probably the opponent is a little different,'' Kirilenko said. ''Still, we need to stay as a team for the whole 48 minutes.''
Utah's inability to spread the scoring isn't a case of Williams and Boozer hogging the ball. Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Derek Fisher and Matt Harpring are mostly missing open shots and losing confidence, resulting in more misses or fewer attempts.
''We have guys who are talented enough to pick it up,'' Boozer said. ''We're going to need those guys to pick it up if we're going to have a chance. In Game 5, we're going to have to get all the loose balls, all the rebounds. Every advantage we can have, we're going to have to get.''