San Antonio Spurs 105, Oklahoma City Thunder 93: A year older, Splitter, Green, and Leonard a year better

by

AT&T CENTER—When the Oklahoma City Thunder swept the last four games of the Western Conference Finals, it was a tale of youth finally being served. Quietly, however, it was the “veteran” San Antonio Spurs going through the growing pains.

Last season was Tiago Splitter and Danny Green’s first year seeing meaningful minutes in the NBA, and Kawhi Leonard’s first year in the league at all.

Together, the trio helped reinvigorate a Spurs team many wrote off after a first round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. But if their emergence played a large role in the Spurs season-long dominance, their inexperience in the Western Conference Finals proved to be the team’s downfall.

“They showed us a lot last year. They had a little bit of trouble in the playoffs because it was their first time,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “But this year they’ve surpassed their performances from last year. Hopefully come playoff time that will continue, but what we’ve gotten has been spectacular and hopefully that will serve us well.”

Monday night’s game was hardly a shot at redemption—that won’t come until the Spurs meet the Thunder in the playoffs—but it was an opportunity to gauge how far they’ve come against the team that ended their season last year.

Now firmly entrenched in the Spurs starting lineup, Tiago Splitter practically did more in one game with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists than he did throughout the Western Conference Finals.

Where Splitter once struggled in the post against point guard Derek Fisher and shrank from spotlight as it shined on an exasperating free throw problem, this year’s Splitter firmly established position in the post and even demanded the ball a couple of times.

Splitter attacked Serge Ibaka in the post,  taking advantage of the shot blocker’s propensity to jump at the slightest hint of a fake with a variety of up and under moves and hook shots.

“I just learned from what I do,” Splitter said. “I think everybody played well. I was one of them. You play well and you feel better. You want to play well against these [playoff teams]. Of course we’ve got to stay humble. It’s one more game.”

The Spurs were thoroughly humbled in the first quarter, picking up where they left off in a blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers by allowing 32 points and 4-of-5 shooting from the three-point line in the first quarter.

With the Spurs still suffering what Popovich deemed a case of identity theft against the Thunder in the first quarter, Green, Splitter and Leonard began to assert their own.

As the lead stretched to 11 and momentum firmly with the Thunder, Green entered the game and promptly hit back-to-back three-pointers, followed by a Leonard three-pointer to bring the Spurs within two.

A few possessions later Leonard made his presence known on national highlight shows, stripping Westbrook and executing a beautiful behind the back dribble on the way to a powerful dunk

“They’re maturing right in front of our eyes. Kawhi and Danny are really picking up a lot of slack,” Duncan said. “We need to be able to attack from every position and we’re starting to do that and it makes us a different team.”

Leonard’s emerging game stands as the biggest potential difference between last year’s Spurs and the current team. No longer chained to the corners, Leonard is emerging as an offensive force from all over the court.

The baseline is comfortably his. Leonard has shown an aptitude for escaping from the corner three, attacking hard closeouts with pull-up jumpers and floaters along the inbounds line. Against the Thunder Leonard varied where he attacked from. He split defenders at the top of the key, dribbling ball ably through his legs, and turning the corner on his way to the rim.

He finished strong on some drives and found teammates on others, seemingly observing and absorbing some of Durant’s passes in the middle of the game when he wrapped a pass around a defender to a cutting Splitter.

And when the offense got ragged and the team needed to stem a Thunder rum, it was Leonard who calmed things down, drawing a switch off a screen, getting an Oklahoma City big man back on their heels, and calmly burying a long jumper.

“Kawhi wants to be a great player. He’s one of those before and after practice type of guys that you just have to kick out of the gym,” Popovich said. “It’s just like a baby trying to walk, he’s just feeling his legs now, figuring out the things he can do. He’s going to be a real special player.”

If the Spurs are going to unseat the Thunder as Western Conference Champions, it will be because Leonard is starting to realize that potential, as well as Green and Splitter. In Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Splitter and Green were non-existent while Leonard was a mere rookie against an MVP candidate.

In last year’s Western Conference Finals loss Green, Splitter, and Leonard were relative and actual rookies playing against an experienced Thunder team. Almost a year later, in a Spurs regular season victory, they were their team’s leading scorers.

  • Bruno

    Who would have thought that Splitter/Duncan could play well together, Pop is a genius.

  • at

    spurs woop that ass

  • Rocky Mountain Spur

    I am giddy about Kawhi’s development. What a beautiful thing to watch a player with such natural ability come up through a system that maximizes talent so well

  • Len

    Several posters here thought it was true and were furious at Pop for taking 2 years to figure it out.

  • AJ

    I’s like to believe Pop knew what he had all along. It just took Tiago two years to “figure it out” by getting healthy, adjusting to the NBA game and its officiating.

  • Sir Timothy

    Watching that stretch in the second quarter when Kawhi hit a couple of shots and then made that steal, full-court drive and left-handed dunk, I finally realized who Kawhi can be. Our own younger, thinner LeBron James. Now do not get me wrong he is not competing with LeBron for league MVP this year, but there are few players outside of James that have the combination of defense, dunking, driving, pull up shots and three-pointers that Leonard put on display last night. I feel like that is what we have been missing, another legitimate mid-range shot creator to go with Tony and Manu.

  • Sir Timothy

    I feel like we saw the playoff rotation tonight. Pop shortened the bench and took Tony’s absence as an opportunity to see what he has in his top-line players. We will be relying on 8 or 9 players it would seem. In addition to Tim Tony and Manu it is Kawhi, Danny, Tiago, Boris, Stephen Jackson, and Gary Neal. Missing in action where Bonner, Mills, De Colo, and Blair played only a few minutes.

    Is anyone else thankful that the Spurs did not trade Tiago? His post game really complements Tim Duncan. Duncan is best now at defense, pick and roll dunks, blocking shots and of course rebounds. Great to see them together out there!

  • mivanov

    why isn’t Patty getting more minutes with Parker out? Joseph isn’t going to play in the playoffs anyway, I don’t really understand this move to be honest. Maybe Patty’s D is the problem.

  • Graham

    It is. Joseph’s getting the time as a measuring stick on his development, to see if he can handle pro level competition. I love Mills, but he needs to be more cerebral with his D if he wants consistent minutes. Joseph’s showing flashes of being a great well rounded backup for Tony.

  • Graham

    Looking at his track record (Rasho, Nazr), it’s obvious that was Pop’s endgame, but injuries and conditioning issues forced him to keep his two bigs seprate for coverage. Now that they are both healthy, and Tiago’s gotten a good amount of system knowledge and confidence, he can stagger them as starters now. Tiago’s development was slow, but constant, and Pop waited till he was ready to shine before he threw him into the spotlight.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lordxar Ray Briggs II

    I wish Pop would unleash Kawhi more often sometimes. I feel like he could be player in the future that will be able to create his own shot at will. Especially if he keeps hitting those mid range shots.

    Unteather the Big Island, Pop.

  • mivanov

    Do you think Pop wants to see if Cory can play back-up come playoffs? That would be very surprising. De Colo sure won’t be seeing a lot of minutes as a rookie. We know Mills needs to step up his D if he wants to get minutes but Neal shouldn’t have to play at the point.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Yeah I’ve been bitching about it since Tiago got healthy in his first season.

  • jthuxtable

    i feel the same way. i think kawhi should be averaging at least 35mpg and be on the floor during garbage time. he’s getting better fast but of course, i want more now.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Uh he didn’t need to figure nothing out and he was healthy in his first year. People make it seem he was injured for every damn game in his first year. Not so. And certainly not his 2nd year. And this season Pop has no choice but to abandon that silly front court rotation he had been experimenting the last couple of seasons and finally he opened his eyes after 20 games this season to see what he really has been missing. Pop realized you can’t teach length.

  • Titletown99030507d

    His improvement was slow because Pop had his ass on the bench for 2 years.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Can anybody tell me why Tiago is the first big to go out in the first quarter usually at the 7 – 6 minute mark in the 1st quarter where Timmy plays practically the entire quarter. I know he played 30 minutes but isnt Timmy 36? And has bad knees? And has played 63 games and could be spending his wad just about now? For goodness sakes Tiago is 27 not 37! Play him, play him, play him. That’s how he’s going to get even better. Wouldn’t it be a nice time to start doing it right about now? Pop forget about his free agency and play the crap out of him! He probably won’t be here next season anyway. USE HIM!

  • Titletown99030507d

    Pop, “read my post”. Is it me or does the lead evaporate when Tiago leaves the court? And when he comes back the leads starts creeping back? Cause. And. Effect. Also just to let you know assist by screen isn’t on the box score but it sure as hell getting you points.

  • Tyler

    Don’t read too much into Joseph playing/Mills not playing – they’re just trying to see what they have in Joseph.

    Besides, in the playoffs, it’s going to be either TP or Manu handling the ball the vast majority of time. Mills will get nothing more than spot minutes.

  • Tyler

    The idea that Pop is thinking about free agency right now (much less during actual games) is laughable.

  • Bruno

    Hard to improve without playing time. I still think he isn’t playing as good as he used to.

  • Graham

    That’s it! We need 48 minutes of Splitter! That’ll solve everything!

  • Graham

    Tyler beat me to it. CoJo’s not gettin playoff minutes, but getting him some meaningful minutes in a HUGE game to get a read on where he’s at.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    My first thought is so that Splitter can still anchor the second unit with Ginobili, the pair forming a potent PnR combination. And the minutes restriction is simply because that’s how the Spurs operate now. Splitter might be young, but he’s also proven fairly injury prone.

  • Graham

    With various injuries/conditioning/integration in the system concerns. Being a big is a tough billing in this system, and Pop was taking care of the investment in Tiago and bringing him along slowly.

  • Graham

    More like Tiago showed he finally had turned his potential into skill with his starter minutes, and Pop happily gave him the starter spot.

  • Graham

    He’s getting the Splitter treatment, but on a bigger scale. Dont ask too much of the kid, take the pressure off, and let him cut loose in those situations, and when he DOES need to take the mantle of Prime option, he’s more than ready and able to handle it.

  • este

    Kawhi has suffered from tendonitis all season. Unnecessary time on the floor is not a good idea IMO.

  • junierizzle

    I think we all envisioned. TIAGO and DUnCAN as a poor man’s twin towers. Its great that it is finally here. As for K Leonard all I can say is wow. Who knows how good he could be. Old and slow we are not. Older maybe but not slow with TP and Leonard on the break. I think the fact that Leonard played heavy playoff minutes last year AS A ROOKIE already spoke volumes about his potential.

  • Sir Timothy

    Hey Titletown –

    You need to enjoy life more. I just imagine you with hypertension and drinking too much coffee and yelling at your dog or something. If you give the impression of chilling out then maybe you will actually chill out.

  • JustinFL

    Couple of things: 1) During the 4th quarter when Boris was getting called for holding Ibaka on the rebounds, Pop pulled him and put in Tiago. That solved the problem. This is a good sign of Pop’s awareness on the frontcourt situation.
    2) IMO the PG situation while Tony is out is mostly dependent on matchups. Patty is undersized, but was used a lot in the Chicago game because he was up against Nate Rob.
    3) COJO is an excellent rebounder at the PG position, plays solid D, and doesn’t turn the ball over. And I believe he is 6’3″ which is a good size for a PG. Also, Kawhi and COJO may hit another small growth spurt because they’re still really young.

  • Bry

    Tiago has markedly improved.He was certainly not capable of being a high-minute rotation player early on in his career. One big part of the reason why they were keeping his minutes around 20 per game was because of his lack of stamina. He’s drastically improved his FT shooting, he’s finally shown aggressive attacking moves in the low-post (something glaringly absent his first couple of seasons). And now he occasionally creates his own offense rather than relying on playmakers or the pick and roll. Tiago (along with Green and other role-players) absolutely disappeared against OKC last year, and he was equally absent during his minutes against Memphis the year before. So, let’s not pretend the only thing he lacked was minutes or opportunities.

  • ThatBigGuy

    Splitter is the first out of the game because he’s essentially the 2nd big AND 4th big. He comes in for Timmy at the first quarter break to run the PnR with Manu. It’s a pretty good strategy.

    On a different note, you have such a OCD fascination with one storyline every year. Last year it was “Pop isn’t good enough” and now it’s Splitter’s minutes. What’s your deal, man?

  • ThatBigGuy

    The Spurs have a beautiful management. Spurs only have ~$45 million on the books for next year, leaving them ~$25 million under the luxury tax. That gives them plenty of money to resign Manu and extend Splitter, and still give Kawhi a large contract in the next summer (5 years $60 million, on par with Batum’s contract plus the extra 1 yr for the franchise designation). They could even extend Neal to a fair deal and still have cash leftover to reload the last 1/3 of the bench.

    It’s amazing how they can balance winning now with remaining flexible in the long term.

  • Jimbo

    Splitter’s mom is cluttering this message board with her posts, but that said, I am pleased to see Tiago playing well. Bry is right. Splitter was not a big-minutes rotation player when he got here. He’s come a long way and deserves a lot of credit for improving his game. Undoubtedly Pop was trying to disguise what the Spurs had so they don’t lose him in free agency :)

  • Len

    Against OKC, Tiago was a no show. But the Memphis debacle, Tiago played well in his limited minutes. I vividly recall many people, including me, questioning why he didn’t play more in that series.

  • ThatBigGuy

    The playoff PG rotation will be Tony, Manu, and Neal in spot minutes. Pop’s giving CoJo the chance that he’s earned now, with an eye towards giving him the back-up PG spot next year.

  • ThatBigGuy

    A more apt comparison might be Scottie Pippen: long, lean lock-down
    defender with an underratedly potent offensive game. As defenses focus
    more on Kawhi’s game, if his playmaking ability improves, he’ll be a
    nearly exact copy of Pippen.

  • RG

    It’s like the Exact Opposite of the Cowboys!

  • Graham

    That’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for Kawhi, him becoming this generation’s Pippen.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Thank you Bruno. I second that.

  • Titletown99030507d

    From the way people on this board keep wanting a big. They’ll need big money to get a superstar because for them splitter just isnt enough. Marks my words they’ll want a new big and want to trade splitter after they sign him if they sign him.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Hooray!

  • Titletown99030507d

    Duncan’s Knees are sore. And he’s not playing against the wolves tonight. Fine play him till he screws up his worn out body as if you didn’t notice. Dude he’s going to feel it come playoffs and its starting to show now. OCD my ass. Just want to see the Brazilian mamba play—- alot.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Wow you look like you could do some of that chilling out by the way your responding to me. Thanks for the advice but try it yourself. —- Ahhhhh sit back and enjoy the T-Wolves game.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Never liked him never will. Im sure some of you felt the same way but as usual when were winning you just like to kiss that ass.

  • Titletown99030507d

    You can throw that out the window just about now. He’s played every game this season can’t say that about Manu, Tony, Timmy, Neal, and whoever. What’s the excuse now. Oh yeah he still wants to give Blair some burn. Oh please!

  • Titletown99030507d

    How does one increase stamina? By playing. Shit this isnt rocket science. And yes he’s better now because why? He’s playing.

  • Patrick

    Really really liked what I saw in Tiago. He looked very confident scoring out of the post which I thought was missing in his first couple seasons. Hopefully he will be this confident through the playoffs as him and Timmy work well together.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Just like you saw last night. That’s the way he’s going to play against them in the playoffs. He’s got a different swagger about him now. He knows he belongs in this league. So enjoy it while we can because he’s not going to be with this team next season.