X-Factor: Spurs bigs key to Memphis redemption


Ask any San Antonio Spurs fan and they’ll tell you that the bad taste is still firmly planted in their mouths. It’s the recurring nightmare that simply won’t go away.

After the Spurs finished the season with the #1 seed in the Western Conference and went 61-21 on the season, they faced an underrated Grizzlies team that immediately stole home court in Game 1 with Manu Ginobili still out and finished off the Spurs in six games.

When previewing this series, many writers and broadcasters are making the mistake of using the 2011 series as a gauge of what to expect this time around, but both teams are very different, and this Spurs squad is undeniably better than the team the Spurs trotted out in 2011. The Spurs were set at point guard with George Hill, but had an injured Ginobili backed up by Neal at shooting guard, an underperforming Richard Jefferson and Steve Novak at the three. Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner were left to contend with the likes of Marc Gasol, Zack Randolph and Darrel Arthur.

Back then, Danny Green was on and off the injured list and Tiago Splitter was counted on mostly to be a third string big. This team by comparison has a solid starting group and a better backup corps supporting them.

Since his 2010-11 season, Splitter has doubled almost every one of his stats. During the regular season, Splitter averaged 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and just under one block and steal per game.

While no one expects Splitter to be a Randolph or Gasol stopper, Splitter has enough height to try and bother Randolph’s high-arching shots as long as he doesn’t let Randolph have his way and get stuck on one side of the basket. He’ll likely be asked to switch off on Gasol as well when Tim Duncan heads to the bench and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rolls the dice on Boris Diaw, Blair and possibly Bonner on Randolph.

While Duncan had some help from Antonio McDyess in 2011, he has a lot more help now. Having Splitter there, and with Diaw able to pull one of the bigs outside of the paint, Duncan will have a fair shot at rebounds, and trust me, against Memphis, there will be an opportunity for rebounds.

Blair should definitely also get more minutes this series as Pop throws different players at Randolph. Blair’s ability to fight for rebounds could also earn him the added time.

But aside from Duncan having Splitter, Diaw, Blair and Bonner, the Spurs can also rely on a swarming Kawhi Leonard to try to pick away steals, double quickly and even make a few block attempts while leaving a player that isn’t even in the same league as the shooters he defended last round.

The biggest key of all though, isn’t the players Pop can put next to Duncan. It’s Duncan himself. While several Spurs players have made huge strides. The 2011 NBA Playoffs version of Duncan is a far cry from the 2013 version.

Duncan has had an impressive year and back in 2011 against the Grizzlies, he just broke double digit scoring averages by a few points, racking up 12.7 points per game. By comparison, Duncan is now averaging 18.7 points per game through his first two series.

If Duncan is rested enough and gets back to trusting his midrange game, he can be the difference maker in this series, and that could be exactly what it takes to give him a chance to fight for his fifth ring.