10 Keys for the San Antonio Spurs Heading into the Playoffs

Bradlee Ross@rossbeCorrespondent IIApril 9, 2012

10 Keys for the San Antonio Spurs Heading into the Playoffs

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    It's official. The San Antonio Spurs have overtaken the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They have used an 11-game win streak and solid, balanced basketball to do so.

    Whether it's their tremendous depth, their Hall-of-Fame coach or their championship-tested stars, the Spurs just keep on winning year after year, and this year is no different. Tim Duncan and company are headed to the top as they are playing right now, and Manu Ginobili has just returned from injury for the playoff stretch.

    Here are 10 keys for the Spurs heading into the playoffs.

The Play of Kawhi Leonard

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    So far this season, Kawhi Leonard has been a draft day steal for the Spurs who picked him in the middle of the first round last season.

    Leonard is fourth among rookies in player efficiency rating and is averaging eight points, 5.2 rebounds, and an assist per game. He has also proved to be a solid wing defender, leading the team with 1.4 steals per game.

    His play, especially since he starts, might be the X factor for this Spurs team in the playoffs. It will likely be Leonard who is called upon to defend the likes of Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay and Kobe Bryant in big pressure, playoff situations.

Improving the Defense

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    For the better part of a decade, the Spurs' calling card has been their stellar, championship-caliber defense. This year, that has not been so.

    Now, the Spurs are one of the most efficient teams on the offensive end. They rank 16th in the NBA in points allowed per game and third in points scored as a team per game.

    No team can score as well in the playoffs as they can in the regular season. Teams lock down their defense and force you out of your comfort zone. Tim Duncan and company know that, and they'll need to be sure they are ready for it.

The Health of Manu Ginobili

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    Manu Ginobili is a big part of this Spurs team. That was made obvious in last year's playoffs, when the No. 1-seeded Spurs were bounced by No. 8 Memphis in the first round after Ginobili broke his arm.

    This season, Ginobili has again been out with injuries, but he has slowly made his way back to the court just in time for the playoff stretch. The Spurs must keep him healthy if they want to win a title this season.

    They were able to win regular season games without him, but that won't be the case in the playoffs.

Gregg Popovich

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    Never in NBA history has there been a head coach that has been so much better than his contemporaries than Gregg Popovich is right now.

    Popovich has won four titles with the Spurs over the last 13 years or so, but his coaching efforts get more and more impressive with each passing year. His key pieces get older and older, but his teams stay just as good as they ever were.

    He is the biggest advantage that the Spurs have over any other team in playoffs.

The Rotation

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    The additions of Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, and Stephen Jackson, along with the return of Manu Ginobili from injury, leave the Spurs with some decisions to make as far as the starting and bench rotations go.

    Since this is the Spurs we are talking about, it's a forgone conclusion that they will make good decisions regarding who should play how many minutes and when. But it still is a key for the postseason.

Tim Duncan's Minutes

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    Gregg Popovich has done a masterful job this season of managing the minutes of his veteran stars like Tim Duncan. The older big man is averaging 28.4 minutes per game, which is tied with last season as the lowest average of his career.

    Yet, Duncan has managed to improve his scoring and rebounding averages from last year. Duncan is showing that he can still be a huge difference maker and leader on his team while not playing big minutes.

    His minutes will grow larger in the playoffs, but only because the management of them during the regular season has been so stellar.

Tweaking the Offense

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    The Spurs have been ridiculously balanced this season on offense. They've had 11 players average double figures in the scoring column.

    That formula works great in the regular season when teams are more lax defensively and have trouble with matchups. Fast foward to the playoffs, and suddenly that balance can mean that you don't have that one guy who can get you points when no one else can.

    Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have all been that guy for the Spurs in the past, and they must be again for the Spurs to really excel in the postseason. Too much balance can be a bad thing in certain situations.

Playoff Seeding

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    Matchups are really what determines who wins in the playoffs almost as much as anything else. Last season, what would have happened in the postseason if the Spurs hadn't played Memphis in the first round?

    For a team like the Spurs, who play a certain way, the matchups they get are very key to their chances in the postseason.

    While they have matched up well with the Oklahoma City Thunder this season, potential matchups with the Los Angeles Lakers or Memphis Grizzlies again would not be ideal. The Spurs need good matchups to advance. But then again, so does every other playoff team.

Bench Play

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    Right now, the San Antonio Spurs have Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw all coming off the bench. Those three alone make the Spurs' bench the best in the NBA.

    When you add in Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Patty Mills, and Matt Bonner, you realize just how unfair life really is if you root for another NBA team.

    This Spurs squad is stacked, but not like Miami or Boston is with big names. This Spurs team is deep with guys who buy into the same system and don't care who gets the points or accolades. They all have a single goal: winning.

Tony Parker

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    Tony Parker has been one of the biggest reasons why the Spurs have been so darn good this season.

    The French point guard is averaging 18.9 points and a career-high 7.7 assists per game. He's become the leader of this team, carrying it through times with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

    In the playoffs, it will probably need to be Parker who makes the big plays to win games for San Antonio. Ginobili's health is always an issue, and Duncan is not as good offensively as Parker is.

    Parker has been the Spurs' hero this season, and he'll need to keep that up if they're going to win it all.