With Game 6 still in the balance, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich made an unconventional move.
He benched the greatest power forward in basketball history.
Tim Duncan watched from the bench as his teammates extended a two-point lead to double digits in the final two minutes. San Antonio ousted Golden State and stormed into the Western Conference finals, which open Sunday.
Duncan, good team guy that he is, is not accustomed to sitting on the pine during winning time, but he told the ESPN cameras after the game that he trusts his coach implicitly. With that said, don’t expect Timmy to sit much against the burly Memphis Grizzlies. All hands will be on court for what will be a celebration of big-boy basketball.
These conference finals will be about post play, and the team that makes it to the Finals will be the one that owns the paint. Duncan’s résumé speaks for itself. You can mark down 18 points and 10 rebounds right now for Game 1 at AT&T Center.
But gone are the days when Duncan could carry the inside scoring load on his own. While he can still reach back for an occasional 30-point performance, those consistent blowup performances are in the rear view. His current output is solid, but it won’t be enough on its own for the Spurs to beat Memphis.
Enter the 6-foot-11-inch Tiago Splitter.
He must play productive minutes in this series because the teams that will go the deepest in the postseason are the ones able to score consistently in their halfcourt sets. There’s a reason that high-octane offensive teams like Golden State and Oklahoma City are home watching now. Both were far too reliant on jump shooting and didn’t get enough points in the paint.
The posts are taking center stage now, and Splitter, who has worked his way back from an ankle injury, is about to take the biggest test of his career. There isn’t a better post duo than Memphis’ sneakily effective Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the NBA’s defensive player of the year and my pick for the best all-around center in the game. If Splitter shrinks from this challenge, the Spurs will lose this series.
Popovich has showed an increasing confidence in Splitter as the season wore on, and now is the time to see if that confidence will be rewarded with the Spurs’ first NBA Finals berth since 2007.
Splitter has come on lately. After missing the first game of the Golden State series with that ankle, he played only 47 minutes over the next three games before logging 56 minutes in the past two. He finished with 14 points and four rebounds in Game 6.
“He’s gotten healthier and healthier,” Popovich told reporters after the series clincher. “I think that as the series has gone on, he gotten his rhythm back slowly but surely each game. What he did (in Game 6) is what he’s been doing for us all year.”
Splitter knows he is the fourth or fifth option in this offense, but he has to convert on the rare offensive opportunities that come his way. These will be low-scoring games, and possessions will be more valuable than in the previous two series. I’m not saying Splitter has to outplay Randolph or Gasol, but he can’t allow himself to disappear and place too much pressure on Duncan and those 37-year-old legs.
Against Golden State, Splitter was always the biggest guy in the gym, but the floor will be much more clogged in this series, with 518 pounds of Gasol and Randolph occupying the lane.
In four games against Memphis during the regular season, Splitter averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. His best game came on Jan. 16, when he scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds in San Antonio’s 103-82 win. That same night, Duncan added 19 points and seven rebounds as the San Antonio posts outplayed Randolph and Gasol, who combined for only 22 points and eight rebounds.
If Splitter can deliver 10 and 7 on a consistent basis, which would provide Duncan the help he needs inside, the Spurs have enough in the other areas to advance to the championship round.
In their biggest series to date, the Spurs are capable of moving on if Splitter plays big against the best bigs he will face this postseason.