Heat's small-ball success creating tough lineup choices for Spurs
MIAMI -- Is history in the process of repeating itself with Tiago Splitter?
The Spurs center has blossomed into a reliable back line pillar over the last two seasons, a very good low-post defender and rebounder whose post-to-post interplay with Tim Duncan and ability to finish in the basket area keeps opponents honest when San Antonio has the ball. Those skills netted him a four-year, $36 million contract last summer, not bad for a guy who didn't make his NBA debut until he was 25.
In traditional match-ups, San Antonio's Twin Towers approach -- starting Duncan and Splitter together with guards Tony Parker, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard -- has wreaked havoc. That starting group posted a devastating +14.6 net rating this season, and its success continued into the playoffs. Flash back to the Spurs' conference semifinals series against the Blazers, who play 7-foot center Robin Lopez alongside All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge for most of the game. Splitter's ability to defend Aldridge in isolation was one of the deciding factors in the series, and he averaged 6.8 points and 5.8 rebounds as the Spurs pounded the Blazers in the paint. The Brazilian center was able to play more than 27 minutes a night, even though much of the series was spent in garbage time, and the Spurs enjoyed a strong +15.4 net rating (109.8 offense, 94.4 defense) when he was on the court.
Splitter's story changed dramatically in the Western Conference finals against the Thunder, once Serge Ibaka returned from injury in Game 3. Instead of controlling the interior on both ends, the Spurs suddenly found themselves struggling with Ibaka's presence offensively and defensively. The Twin Towers approach wasn't an ideal alignment for keeping up with Ibaka as he roamed his way to mid-range jumpers, and going big allowed Ibaka to hang out in the paint defensively, where his shot-blocking skills mucked up San Antonio's offense throughout Games 3 and 4.
Coach Gregg Popovich solved these problems by sacrificing Splitter, dumping him out of the starting lineup for Games 5 and 6, moving Matt Bonner, a three-point specialist, into Splitter's spot and relying more heavily on the versatile Boris Diaw. This wasn't a total benching: Splitter still saw time, usually as the lone big in San Antonio's second unit, and he averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 17.1 minutes per night. The move was a clean victory all around. The Spurs' net rating with Diaw instead of Splitter improved from +5.2 to +7.7 against the Thunder. Just as importantly, though, San Antonio was able to keep its bench unit humming after the switch: Splitter's overall net rating was +8.1. Even in a reduced, non-starting role, Splitter was contributing meaningfully to San Antonio's success.
The question, with the Finals split 1-1 with the Heat, is whether Popovich will sacrifice Splitter again now that he's confronted with an even smaller opponent.
The mismatch question was obvious entering the series: Miami prefers to use spread lineups with only one big man, usually the spread-happy Chris Bosh, while San Antonio's default configuration has included two bigs. Something had to give, and so far the giving has occurred on San Antonio's end.
In fact, the sacrificing of Splitter may have already begun. Although he has maintained his starting role but he's exited before the midway point of the first quarter, replaced by Diaw, in Games 1 and 2. He's been given an even quicker hook to start the second halves, getting just a few minutes in each game before Diaw replaced him. As a result, San Antonio's starters have logged just 12 minutes together total through two games against the Heat, with Splitter playing just 19 minutes in the Spurs' Game 2 loss at home.
Multiple factors appear to be coming together in such a way that Splitter's role could further erode.
First, San Antonio's most successful lineup of the Finals -- Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Diaw and Duncan -- doesn't include him. If Miami takes a lead in this series, Popovich will likely be strongly tempted to lean on that group even more heavily than he has already, given that it includes a number of dynamic offensive options, includes multiple looks for defending LeBron James, and matches up better with Miami's spread formation.
Second, Bosh has come to play. His game-clinching three-pointer and assist on Sunday were huge, but his offensive reliability -- 18 points in each game -- has been even bigger, allowing coach Erik Spoelstra to stick with his original script. Rather than being forced to turn to beefier, more-defensive minded lineups involving Udonis Haslem, Spoelstra has been able to just ride Bosh (and Chris Andersen) in small-ball orientations that have succeeded in keeping pace with San Antonio's attack.
Third, and perhaps most critically, Rashard Lewis has risen to the occasion as well. Cast out of the rotation for much of the season, Lewis has reemerged over the last few weeks to further space the court for Miami's offense. San Antonio's big lineups struggled to check Ibaka in the mid-range and Lewis's three-point shooting is an even trickier cover. After hitting double figures just eight times all season, Lewis scored 10 points in Game 1 and 14 points in Game 2, knocking down five threes in the two games. The damage could have been even worse, with Lewis enjoying plenty of open looks.
This could all be bad news for Splitter, as is the history from last year's Finals between the Heat and Spurs. After playing Splitter 20+ minutes in each of the first three games, Popovich cut his minutes sharply for Game 4 and then moved him to the bench for Game 5. He played 10 minutes or fewer in each of the last three games of the 2013 Finals, as the Spurs tried to cope with Mike Miller's outside shooting while hoping a move to the starting lineup would kickstart a struggling Ginobili. Splitter's net rating in the 2014 Finals now sits at minus-5.3 after a rough Game 2, in which he scored just two points.
There are a few things working in Splitter's favor. His presence has generally limited the effectiveness of James in the basket area, relative to when he's out of the game, and the Spurs haven't fallen behind early in either game. Also, there isn't an obvious shift for Popovich to make. Bonner might be capable of offsetting Lewis, but Miami would surely be looking to exploit his physical limitations by making him work. Diaw is already seeing plenty of time, and he's being asked to do a lot, so there's probably a cap on how many extra minutes he can sop up effectively.
Going super small by using Leonard as a power forward alongside Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green was San Antonio's most-used lineup during last year's Finals. Even so, the group posted a -1.5 net rating during that series and has been badly outscored in limited minutes this year, with Leonard failing to make a big impact in either of the first two games. If Leonard comes back to life, though, Popovich could be tempted to use that lineup like he did last season, as it gets all of his most dynamic players on the court simultaneously.
Game 3 in a split series is always pivotal, and Tuesday night's contest at the American Airlines Arena is no exception. That's especially true for Splitter, as this might be his last, best chance to prove that he can make a mark on a series that looks to be spreading out beyond his grasp.
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