Spurs get crushed 111-100 as Splitter’s absence leaves major void
The Spurs and Pacers have been the brick walls of the NBA this season, but San Antonio’s defense cracked badly on Saturday night, and Indiana toyed with the defending Western Conference champions.
Paul George went for 28 points on 14 shots, David West put up 20 and eight rebounds, and the Pacers just picked the Spurs apart following what had been a nearly flawless first quarter for San Antonio. Everything went to hell in the blink of an eye, and it began with Tiago Splitter’s departure from the game.
And before I continue, please don’t get me wrong: Indiana is awesome. San Antonio likely would’ve lost with or without Splitter. This is just to point out a trend that has maintained over the course of the season, that Tiago is incredibly important to this team on the defensive side of the ball, especially against title contenders like the Pacers.
Splitter — who was a game-time decision due to tightness in his calf — started the game under a limited-minutes restriction, Gregg Popovich said prior to tip. Turned out there weren’t very many available. The Spurs led 35-22 after a Manu Ginobili 3-pointer, right before Tiago was removed from the game with 8:33 left in the second quarter. All the Pacers did from there was outscore San Antonio 84-45 over the next 27-plus minutes, or until they let their foot off the gas pedal and took George out of the game.
Between the 9:46-mark of the second quarter and the 4:59-mark of the fourth, Indiana shot 69 percent from floor, hit nine of the 12 threes they took and outrebounded San Antonio by 11 boards. All the while, the Spurs shot 37 percent during the same stretch. And George was just stupefying. He had 22 points, four assists and three rebounds in 24 minutes during that timespan, and there was little the Spurs — Kawhi Leonard included — could do about it. He broke them.
You almost never see egregious defensive breakdowns from San Antonio, but the Pacers brought out the worst in them. And, man, how weird it was.
The Spurs’ offense was humming in the first quarter, looking as good as it had all season and seeming no worse for wear after the Mexico City malfunction that left the team’s travel situation in shambles. They were picking apart the best defense in the league and clamping down on the other end, suffocating Indiana while running their sets with ease.
Then the big Brazilian’s calf acted up, and the Spurs flamed out. While the sample size is weird (considering the circumstances) and small (given Splitter’s minutes), the story tonight remains a microcosm of the season. When Tiago sits, the Spurs’ defense just isn’t the same.
If you need a visual, here is the artist’s rendering of the scene of the crime last night. On the left is the Pacers’ shot chart when Splitter was on the court; on the right, when Tiago was on the bench.
Before Splitter left the game for good, San Antonio’s defense was allowing just 80 points per 100 possessions in the eight minutes he was on the floor. In the 40 minutes he spent on the bench, the Spurs allowed more than 133 points per 100 possessions and grabbed just 40.4 percent of available rebounds — as opposed to 61.1 percent with Tiago on the court. The situation on Saturday was extreme, but it was not an anomaly.
It’s been simple so far this season: when Tiago Splitter is on the floor, the Spurs might have the best defense in the league (86.9 defensive-efficiency rating). When he’s on the bench, they’re allowing more than 102 points per 100 possessions. And against a team like the Pacers, he’s an absolute necessity.
Indiana feasts on smaller teams, and their physicality can overwhelm even when the roster is at full-strength. This shouldn’t take away from what the Pacers did to the Spurs, but once Jeff Ayres and Matt Bonner took over primary responsibilities alongside Tim Duncan, things didn’t just go downhill, they went spiraling off the edge of a cliff. Timmy had to deal with Mt. Hibbert on his own, and West was able to abuse anyone who tried to stick him.
The play over that 27-minute span was incredible, and it all started with George. When he wasn’t scoring, he was setting up others for easy shots. And even when he didn’t have the ball, the distraction level was very, very un-Spurs-like. You never see these sorts of missed assignments with this team. I’m not even sure what’s going on here.
Bonner is on Lance Stephenson on the right wing here, while Leonard guards George on the back side. But what in the world is Danny Green doing (yellow box)? This occurred off an inbounds play, and I’m not sure anyone knew where they were supposed to be. I get putting length on the in-bounder, but Bonner on Lance Stephenson with Green in no-man’s land? This wasn’t a zone.
The storyline was simple after this one: The Spurs got their asses handed to them. Yes, the Pacers hit a hot streak in this one that was likely too much to overcome even with a fully healthy Splitter in tow, but San Antonio’s defense was atrocious. Don’t expect that to carry over.
We’ve seen these sorts of nights on several occasions over the last couple of years. You’ll remember the night in New York when Stephen Jackson tripped over Mayor Bloomberg’s waitress, or the game Andrew Bynum grabbed 30 rebounds in San Antonio a couple of years ago, or the time Damian Lillard went berserk and the Spurs suffered their worse home loss of the Popovich era. What typically followed these blowouts (either immediately or a few games later) were long winning streaks. These things happen, and Popovich’s teams always respond well.
And hey, Kawhi Leonard had a game. For the first time in what feels like forever, the Spurs’ young gun was fantastic. He was shooting confidently and impacting the game within the flow of the offense, and the starting lineup (with Tiago) was dominant again, not just treading water. Leonard hit two 3s on four attempts, which is the kind of number he needed for at least one night.
But the wildest development in San Antonio has been the impact of Splitter defensively. His contract evoked sneers over the offseason, but the truth of the matter is he might still be underpaid. He’s nearly as good as it gets in this league as a frontcourt player on the defensive side of the ball, and while his contract may still draw criticism, he very well could be the Spurs’ most important defender.