With a 55-19 record and another Southwest Division crown all but guaranteed, 2012-13 has been yet another successful regular season for the San Antonio Spurs. However, if we know anything about Gregg Popovich’s club, we know that such accolades are meaningless for them.
This is a Spurs team built to win a championship, and with a one-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Western Conference’s best record, it appears to have as good of a shot as any team not named the Miami Heat.
However, before it can get back to its first finals since 2007, San Antonio is going to need to take out some combination of the Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. All four of these teams boast young, athletic talent and are legitimate threats to send the Spurs packing before they even have a chance to win Tim Duncan’s fifth ring.
With the exception of Memphis, who prefers a grind-it-out pace, the rest of these teams love to play up-tempo basketball, the same style that has been embraced recently by San Antonio, but ultimately led it to playoff exits at the hands of the Grizzlies and Thunder.
That's why the key is San Antonio's big men.
When San Antonio has succeeded against OKC in 2012-13, it has been because it played through its big men and did not try to run with the Thunder on every possession. The Spurs boast a 2-1 record over the Thunder with one matchup remaining.
Tony Parker may have buried the game-winner in their 86-84 home victory on November 1st, but it was Tim Duncan who led the way with a 20-point, eight-rebound performance. Even Boris Diaw chipped in 10 points, seven boards and four assists for San Antonio, who held Durant to just 23 points.
On March 11th, Tiago Splitter’s 21-point, 10-rebound performance, along with strong bench play and 17 points from Kawhi Leonard, led San Antonio to a double-digit victory over the defending Western Conference champions.
Although the Spurs are capable of playing transition basketball as well as anyone, this team needs to play more through its big men to counteract opponents with explosive guards. The tempo slows down in the playoffs, and San Antonio should look to throw the ball down low to Splitter and Duncan as much as possible.
The play of Duncan will be particularly important. The 16-year veteran has had an unexpected resurgence, averaging 17.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks per game on 50.5 percent shooting.
He has looked sharper on the offensive end than in recent campaigns and is on pace for his best statistical year since the 2009-10 season. Duncan has also been a better rim protector; he has not averaged 2.7 or more blocks per contest since 2003-04.
Though the Clippers have Blake Griffin, the Grizzlies have Zach Randolph and the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, no challenger in the field has a big man of Duncan’s pedigree.
With Manu Ginobili likely to be rusty after missing a month due to a hamstring injury, it will be important that the Spurs establish Duncan as a scoring threat on the block to complement Tony Parker.
Splitter cannot be forgotten either. The Brazilian center has blossomed this season, averaging career highs of 10.5 points and 6.2 boards while shooting a blistering 57.2 percent from the floor. The athletic center has morphed into a very reliable scoring and rebounding option for Popovich’s squad.
By going big, the Spurs could neutralize teams like L.A. and Denver on the glass.
Denver ranks first in the league in offensive rebounds at 13.3, while the Clippers are 15th at 11.3. The Nuggets in particular score plenty of easy buckets off of putbacks, which San Antonio must limit in the playoffs.
Guards like Parker and Gary Neal cannot be expected to contain the likes of Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook one-on-one, but if they have the Spurs’ big men helping out behind them, they will be able to play more aggressive defense.
The Nuggets in particular thrive on scoring in the paint, and if San Antonio can clog the lane they will be hard-pressed to win a playoff series from the perimeter with their mediocre outside shooting.
Beyond their sheer size, San Antonio boasts one of the best passing offenses in the NBA. They average 25.2 assists per game, good for first in the NBA, and score 104 points per game, fourth amongst all teams.
Though Ginobili’s absence will cost them one of their most creative passers for a portion of the playoffs, they still have plenty of playmakers on their roster. This team is capable of dishing both from the perimeter as well as off the block, an invaluable skill in the postseason.
In both transition and the half court, they make good decisions, find the open man and do not settle for contested looks.
Young teams often struggle with shot selection in the postseason, but that should not be a problem for a battle-tested San Antonio unit.
They space the floor as well as any team in the league with an impressive 38.2 percent from three-point range. With shooters surrounding Duncan and Parker, opponents will be unable to double-team for fear of leaving Leonard, Danny Green or Matt Bonner open open beyond the arc.
If San Antonio can slow a game down and keep the score in the high 80s or low 90s, that will give it an edge over teams like Denver or Los Angeles who, though improved half-court teams, cannot score off of set plays with the regularity that the Spurs can.
Few teams in the league are as deep as the Spurs, and they need to use that depth to stay aggressive on the defensive end of the floor. This is not a thin team like the Boston Celtics; they have the bodies necessary to foul instead of giving up layups. They can be physical all game long.
San Antonio receives a major offensive boost from their reserves, too.
Their bench averages 37.8 points per game, good for seventh in the league. Though their sixth man Ginobili is hurt, they still have versatile, dangerous players in Diaw and Neal coming off the bench.
Making it out of the Western Conference is no easy feat. But if San Antonio can manage to control the pace of games, feature its big men on both ends of the floor and use its superior passing abilities to create quality looks in the half court, it can best any run-and-gun opponent.
If the Spurs stick to these principles in the postseason, they should end up with yet another Western Conference title.