Darren Abate/Associated Press
The importance that Gregg Popovich places on the defensive side of the ball has never been a secret since he's been in control of the franchise. It's the reason the Spurs won those titles in 1999 and the early to mid-2000s, and it's how they've been able to return to a place of prominence in the championship conversation in the second decade of the 21st century.
But the defensive numbers have experienced a substantial drop-off over the last couple of months, and there is no shortage of reasons why that has been the case.
First, San Antonio has been ravaged by injuries to some of its most important defenders. At one point, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard were all out of the lineup for a significant stretch of time after going down with injuries within 18 days of one another.
While none of them—depending on how you view Leonard—is part of the Spurs' Big Three core (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili), they're vital for their defensive impact and peripheral offensive contributions.
In a sense, Splitter, Green and Leonard represent San Antonio's defensive backbone. On any given night, these three players will likely be guarding the opposition's top three offensive players while allowing Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to play off the main point of attack.
The eye is always attracted to high point totals and explosive offenses, but defense has long been a common denominator among previous NBA Finals winners, and the Spurs know that.
San Antonio is allowing just 91.4 points per 100 possessions when Splitter, Green and Leonard are on the floor together, which is the equivalent of what the Bulls are getting when Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich are on the floor. It's even better than what the Pacers get with Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and David West (92.1 defensive-efficiency rating).
The trio of Leonard, Green and Splitter has only made four appearances on the court together since Jan. 5, the day after Splitter's shoulder sprain set off a chain of injuries that would put the Spurs under for roughly two months. But in that limited time, they have given up fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions while those three have been on the court, and they've been in front of opponents by a net rating of better than 10 per night.
In the grand scheme of things, San Antonio is somehow still the fifth-best defense in the league (100.6 defensive rating), per the NBA's stats page, despite being 10th-best over the last two months (102.6 DRtg). Furthermore, the Duncan-Splitter-Green-Leonard lineup is giving up just 90.9 points per 100 possessions this season, which is a trend to watch as we inch closer to the playoffs.
When the Spurs are healthy, they're a defensive force. We've only seen glimpses of it this season, but it's there, and San Antonio remains a contender because of it.