Now that the San Antonio Spurs have done away with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Oklahoma City Thunder await them in the Western Conference Finals. With a huge blow to their hopes of reaching the NBA Finals, the Thunder are going into this series without their defensive anchor and third best player in Serge Ibaka and that’ll certainly change their game plan going into this series.
For the Spurs, the game plan might not change so much as the paint might soon become as open as it’ll ever be without an Ibaka sighting. While there may be speculation this could turn into a Boris Diaw or Aron Baynes series because of the depth being shortened for Oklahoma City, the X-Factor of the series may be on Tiago Splitter’s shoulders and not the reason why the Spurs faithful may suspect.
Splitter’s defense has been the biggest surprise that San Antonio has seen this postseason and it could be argued it’s been the key for the Spurs eliminating their opponents so far. His defending against the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge has been extremely good that the team hasn’t seen a need to throw help at him and has instead chosen to let Tiago go against his man one on one for the majority of the playoffs. With Ibaka missing due to a season ending calf injury, his defense won’t be needed as a staple to the Spurs’ hopes of leaving this round with four wins but his offense should be.
It’s not a secret that Ibaka has been Oklahoma City’s best rim protector with his athleticism and shot blocking ability, but he’s also been their most intelligent player. His smarts to not give out unnecessary fouls and not get frustrated when guarding the rim has been an important and underrated part of his game. Now the Thunder put their hopes of three big men to protect the basket who really have no experience at it. Kendrick Perkins has slow feet and a low basketball IQ that makes him a liability when opponents get under his skin. Nick Collison is a solid player and has given San Antonio fits, but it’s been primarily while recieving low minutes and not much of a role next to a great defender. Steven Adams is a new face getting attention, but he’s mostly an energy player and those are likely to wear down with more minutes and responsibility given to them to shoulder in the playoffs. Perry Jones might be an option for the Thunder, but the Spurs would likely expose his immaturity against Tim Duncan in the paint (even at his age and lack of mobility).
Insert Tiago Splitter and his ability to time going to the basket to be a huge factor in this series. The Spurs have seen their bread and butter play in the pick and roll become a main force this postseason with Tony Parker’s leadership and maturing in having the patience for the right play to open up. Whether he gets a pick from Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter, he’s driven to the basket and not forced up a shot but instead has tried to reset the play when he’s under the basket with the opposing bigs. The reason Splitter’s offense will be so importan this series is that his aggressiveness to roll to the basket will put huge pressure on the Thunder bigs from the start. Usually Oklahoma City decides to put Perkins on Duncan because of Perkins’s slow feet and that will leave the new starting center the responsbility to shoulder the responsibility of the pick and roll defense coming from Parker and Splitter. The Thunder have also placed Thabo Sefolosha on Tony, which leaves the defense tall but also slower than usual like in the past two series with the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers. This puts a huge burden on the big man defending the Spurs because he’s going to have to make a big decision in either playing up to Parker’s shot, rolling back with the big man setting the pick, or the third option that the Spurs have designed this postseason as a new strategy: drive to the basket and drag the big out with him to force a switch on the reset of the play.
This poses a huge problem for the Thunder without Ibaka. He was quick enough to try to guard Parker’s shot on the pick and roll and also athletic enough to chase Parker to the basket on the pick and roll with the smarts of not fouling him. With the new rotation failing to have the IQ and experience of protecting the rim against the Spurs, this should be Tiago Splitter’s chance to shine against the Thunder. Splitter’s movement on offense should be causing the headaches in Monday’s game. If Splitter’s man commits to Parker, he’s going to be driving to the rim against a smaller and slower player (if it’s Sefolosha compared to a point guard) without a shot blocker to contest his quick layups. If Parker drives to the basket and plans to reset the play, Splitter’s height and length will lead to a quick pass and basket against smaller opponents or the Spurs might elect to go with a pick and roll to switch back to the original defenders but with Tiago having a head start to the basket with him setting a pick against the big guarding Parker on the perimeter (a play the Spurs did against the Dallas Mavericks numerous times). Either way in any scenario, Tiago will have a clearer shot at an open rim than he did against the other teams the Spurs have faced who still had their shot blocking big men available. While some may argue that Adams and Collison are decent shot blockers, they’re also very impatient and have to show their commitment to the block unlike Ibaka. With Ibaka’s long arms and athleticism, he could try a block as the player tries to shoot it. Splitter’s patience to get the best shot may make this a liability for them as the remaining Thunder big men may be caught up in the air while Tiago makes his move.
Splitter’s defense has been key for the Spurs, but look for his aggressive (yet finesse) offensive to play a huge part this series as the X-Factor for San Antonio. Whether they put Steve Adams or Nick Collison on him, he’ll have the edge after playing against Robin Lopez and Samuel Dalembert taking care of the basket. This may be the most wide open the basket has been for him this playoffs.