San Antonio Spurs: 5 X-Factors for Winning the Western Conference
The Spurs cruised by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2012 playoffs in a four-game sweep. This ended any fear that the Spurs' impressive regular season campaign would be cut short again in the postseason, as it was last year by Memphis.
The four-game sweep marked their 14th straight win, proving not only were they the hottest regular season team, but are also one of the hottest in the playoffs.
A question remains: How long will their success last?
While the Spurs are known for being a diverse team with depth in the second unit and stars in the first, their teamwork will not be enough to carry them all of the way to their fifth title. If the Spurs' championship hopes wish to remain unbroken, a few players will need to step up and play at a very high level.
After failing to make an appearance in the league for multiple years, the Brazilian phenom journeyed overseas, only to struggle in his rookie season.
However, after a long offseason, Splitter was able to mature into exactly the player that the Spurs needed him to be—a very poor man's Tim Duncan. He possesses the exact qualities that Duncan does, only to a much lesser extent.
His pick-and-roll game is nearly flawless, and his passing, rebounding and defense highly reflect that of the Big Fundamental.
Now, with the playoffs in full swing, more will be demanded of Splitter than ever. Most importantly, he needs to keep his health in check, as we suffered a scare when he went down with a wrist injury.
Now that he has returned to the lineup, he'll need to be even more productive than in the regular season. With the option to "rest" Duncan crossed off of the list, his in-game minutes will be heavily monitored, and during his breaks, Splitter will need to dominate the frontcourt.
In both possible second-round matchups, the frontcourt features a talented big-man duo just waiting to exploit the Spurs' lack of size. In Los Angeles, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are readying themselves for a dunk-show, while Memphis features one of the best big-man tandems in the league.
Their most glaring weakness is their center spot, so Splitter will need to play the best basketball of his career if they wish to avoid facing elimination.
Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs' first-round draft choice, via Indiana, has continuously impressed the world with his dedication and value that he provides to the organization.
As the team's most inexperienced player, the big stage may fluster him as the games begin to become more and more important. While he has shown more professionalism than almost any other player in his rookie class, it is inevitable to be intimidated in your first playoffs.
Despite whatever emotions may come into play, Leonard must focus on the ultimate goal and become the first rookie his class to wear a championship ring. If by next year, he is sporting that hardware, it will be largely due to his contributions.
Out of any possible matchup that the Spurs may face, a Western Conference Finals against the Thunder seems the most intense. While it will certainly be an exciting series (potentially), a victor is far from being predecided.
If the Spurs can control Kevin Durant—by control I mean keep him from dropping 40 points per night—then they should march on to the finals. If Durant is stopped, it will be at the hands of Leonard, whose massive wingspan and impressive defensive attributes are his primary talents.
His offensive game does not need much improvement for this years' playoffs, but his defense alone could potentially decide the Spurs' fate.
The Spurs made one of their few media appearances on deadline-day, when they swung Richard Jefferson around for Stephen Jackson, the 6'8'' swingman who had previously won a title with the team.
Needless to say, the trade benefited the Spurs greatly because Jackson has been the player that the Spurs expected—and more. His talent is comparable to the league's best, but his attitude often contained it. Now, on a team that he respects and enjoys playing for, we can finally see the Jackson that we once expected—generous, talented and, overall, a quality player.
Similarly to Leonard, Jackson is a defensive star, whose height, length and quickness allow him to be one of the best defenders in the league. If a Thunder/Spurs Western Conference Finals is made into a reality, Jackson will split the duty of guarding Durant with Leonard.
However, unlike Leonard, the team will heavily rely on his offensive production as well. He is a fantastic shooter, especially from beyond the arc. His strength also allows him to penetrate well and provide the Spurs with a strong scoring option at the forward position.
Most importantly, Jackson is one of the four players to have already won a championship. Experience is key, and Jackson must use this to his advantage.
The acquisition of Jackson was known to be key for their playoff run from the moment it was announced, but the extent to which will not be clear until a winner is crowned.
Manu Ginobili is the living X-Factor. He is one of the most exciting players in the league, whose wide range of abilities keep both opponents and fans on the edge of their seats, waiting for him to attack.
Like Jackson, Ginobili's experience will be key to their success, but his contributions are not limited to just this.
As seen in the Utah series, when Ginobili first enters the game, he completely changes the pace and provides the team with the spark that they need to get hot. He is a sharp-shooter, and has recently been scoring at a very high percentage.
In a potential Thunder matchup, his counterpart would be James Harden, the favorite to win the sixth man award. He has been especially hot as of the late, and it will take some serious talent to prevent him from completely taking over.
Fortunately for San Antonio, Ginobili possesses just that. His role is identical to Harden's, as he comes of the bench to provide the team with a strong leader in the second unit.
As the opponents become tougher, the scores will presumably be closer, meaning more crunch time minutes for Ginobili. His ability to perform in clutch situations was demonstrated in Game 4, as his pair of threes silenced a Utah run and guaranteed the Spurs the win.
At the end of games, he very well may end up with the ball in his hands, and it never hurts to have an experienced player in this position. While he may not contribute greatly in the first three quarters, he needs to come alive in the fourth if they want to win it all.
The Spurs' fate rests almost entirely in Tony Parker's hands. While the other players may be the difference between a title or not, without Parker, the Spurs wouldn't even be contenders.
His stellar play throughout the season took the NBA by storm, as he put together an MVP-type season for the league to see. Now, he is hotter than ever and the most important factor for the Spurs' success.
In the next two rounds, the matchups are predicted to be the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City. Each of those teams feature a standout point, in Chris Paul (LAC) and Russell Westbrook (OKC). Parker is certainly in their league, but they each have a young talented partner, while Parker has no true star to back him up.
The winner of each series will ultimately be decided by which point guard proves he is best, which Parker showed in his 42-point game in the win over the Thunder earlier this season.
He certainly has the talent, experience and leadership to carry the Spurs to title No. 5, but whether or not he fully releases it will be the ultimate deciding factor in this year's postseason.