By Rob Mahoney
In a season of wearying injury updates and prolonged recovery timelines, it's nice to finally see a player sneak back into the lineup ahead of schedule. According to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News, the Spurs have confirmed that Tony Parker will be "active and available" for San Antonio in Friday's game against Utah. Parker was originally diagnosed with a Grade 2 ankle sprain that was expected to keep him off the court for roughly four weeks, but Friday marks a mere 20 days since that initial projection.
This obviously comes as rather rosy news for the Spurs, who fared well in Parker's absence but nonetheless need their juggernaut point guard to execute at a high level during the playoffs. The timing of this return makes that entirely possible. Though Parker will have to rebuild his confidence in planting with that sore left ankle, San Antonio has 14 games remaining before the postseason. That's plenty of time for Parker to assume familiar form, and thereby give the Spurs a crucial offensive component to begin their playoff run as planned.
The Western Conference may have a number of credible contenders, but Parker's play this season -- coupled with San Antonio's defensive improvement -- makes the Spurs a particularly tough postseason out. John Schuhmann of NBA.com did a fantastic job of examining all of the areas in which Gregg Popovich's team has bolstered its defensive efficiency, including the quality of San Antonio's defense against the West's top teams:
Oklahoma City has an effective field goal percentage of just 45 percent against the Spurs this season, down from 52 percent in last season’s nine total meetings. In particular, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha have shot much worse against the Spurs than they did last season. Westbrook has shot just 5-for-16 in the paint with Splitter on the floor this season.The Spurs' defensive success not only gives Parker a chance to work his way back into the lineup at his own pace with little risk to the team's competitive quality in the interim, but it also helps to ease Parker's scoring burden relative to years past. Last season, San Antonio could only go as far as Parker, a smothered Manu Ginobili and a limited Tim Duncan could take them, and the famous Spurs' system buckled when pressure was applied to its shot creators. This year, San Antonio has been preparing contingencies for that very same occurrence both by positioning more offensive help around Parker (via the development of Kawhi Leonard, among other things) and constructing a defense that can hold its ground against top-tier opponents. Altogether, this is a formidable team, but only if Parker is able -- as is expected -- to approximate his production from earlier this season.
[Tiago] Splitter played just 53 minutes in last year’s conference finals, 10th most on the Spurs and 94 fewer than Boris Diaw. But he played 34 minutes in the Spurs’ 105-93 victory over the Thunder on March 11, and was a plus-24. OKC scored 41 points in his 14 minutes on the bench, but just 52 in his 34 minutes on the floor.
The Spurs’ defense against quality opponents goes far beyond their three games against the Thunder. In games played between current Western Conference playoff teams, San Antonio has been much better defensively than any of the other seven, including the Grizzlies, who rank second in defensive efficiency overall.