Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in a nationally televised game at Golden State on Dec. 19, yet still pulled out a 104-102 victory. The Spurs returned to the Bay Area on Saturday night, and Popovich once again rested Duncan and Ginobili.
As usual, the other defending Western Conference champs never skipped a beat, cruising to a 99-90 win.
With the win, San Antonio became the first Western Conference team to clinch a playoff berth. They are riding a league-high 13-game winning streak. The last time the Spurs won 13 in a row was 2007, which is also the last time they won an NBA championship.
How can one team dominate its rivals in the absence of its best players on such a consistent basis? It's the Spurs way.
Five players—Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli and Tiago Splitter—scored at least 15 points. But it was the big man, Splitter, notching a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds, who stood out.
It was a masterful performance for the Brazilian—the 14 rebounds tied a season high and the 17 points matched his second-highest total of the season.
He may not be a big-time scorer, but Splitter's point totals appear to be crucial to San Antonio's game-by-game success. According to Basketball-Reference, the Spurs are an astonishing 29-0 when Splitter scores at least seven points. On the other hand, their record drops to a mediocre 10-10 when he scores six points or fewer.
Of course, Splitter is not usually on the court for his offense. Per former ESPN TrueHoop contributor Justin Faudree, the presence of Splitter has a demonstrably positive effect on the Spurs defense:
The San Antonio Spurs are 9.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Tiago Splitter on the floor. Nuts. http://t.co/Hu0KjkGAaA— Justin Faudree (@SmoothsHoops) March 23, 2014
Popovich complimented Splitter for doing all the little things needed to win during a 2013 interview with NBA.com's Jeff Caplan:
Somebody asked me a while back what has he improved in. I said nothing. He just hasn’t played. What he does for us now healthy is what he’s done in Europe for a lot of years. He’s been on championship teams over there. He’s a defender, a rebounder, a solid pick-and-roll player. He doesn’t have moves and he’s not a big offensive threat, but he’s every coach’s dream because he does everything so fundamentally sound.”
If anyone were to question Tiago Splitter's positive contributions to this Spurs team, numbers like these are undeniable proof.
As for the Spurs, they do not play another team with a winning record until a March 31 date with the Indiana Pacers. They could very well continue this streak into April.