The Spurs have played 94 games this season, including 12 playoff games. And I think we've learned a couple of things about them.
Three great bigs are plenty to contend
While it was fun to speculate about who would emerge as the fourth big, most people assumed the Spurs would simply shorten their big man rotation in the playoffs. Had one of Ayres or Baynes proven themselves worthy of a permanent role, Pop would have given it to them and the Spurs would have been even deeper. But with Leonard able to play some power forward minutes and such a good three headed monster in Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan, the Spurs were going to be fine anyway.
In the post-season, that triumvirate has combined to absorb 83.6 of the total 96 minutes available down low. In round one Bonner got the most minutes out of the remaining three big men and in round two it was Baynes. Since the team faced two opponents that often like to stay big, lineups with Leonard at the four were not prevalent but he did play a handful of minutes at that spot.
The versatility of the three main bigs is what allows the Spurs to get away with the short rotation. Both Duncan and Diaw can score from inside or out. Splitter can defend perimeter oriented power forwards and post behemoths. As long as one of the other two guys is in, Diaw's below average rebounding can be hidden and on offense Boris helps make up any offensive deficiencies. It really is a fantastic combination of complementary players.
A reliable fourth big would have been ideal but the Spurs have more than gotten by with three, especially in the playoffs.
Manu is still great but not consistent anymore
Ginobili is still one of the most impactful players in the league...when he is feeling it. Manu's performances range from sublime to borderline detrimental more often than they ever had. Ginobili usually finds ways to at the very least offset his sporadic shortcomings but he simply can't be counted on to be a star anymore.
A lot of people seem to have forgotten this, but the last time Ginobili was truly healthy he was arguably a top ten player in the league. Had he not injured his arm against the Suns in the last game of the regular season, who knows how the Spurs would have fared against the Grizzlies. Unfortunately, that was the last season Manu would display consistency. Right now, the flashes or brilliance are as blinding as ever but not as reliable.
With some rest Manu could go back to the level he showed in six of the seven games against Dallas. But I wouldn't be shocked if going forward his performance oscillates between essential and complementary from game to game. The key, then, will be to stick with him and try to help him past the lows knowing that the highs will come. And luckily Pop has been wise enough to do that in the past.
Depth does matter in the playoffs
I don't think it's a coincidence that the Spurs struggled against the Mavs when their subs couldn't make and impact. And obviously the fact that the bench showed up against Portland was instrumental to achieving the gentleman's sweep. The fact of the matter is having depth is important in the playoffs, especially for a team like the Spurs.
Players 9-12 are obviously less important when most teams shorten their rotations but having competent back ups can not only help make up for an uncharacteristically poor showing from a starter but also make surviving an injury easier. Once Portland lost Mo Williams, consistent bench production was no longer a possibility for them. Barton filled in admirably for a game but no one expected him to replicate that performance.
The Spurs, on the other hand, used Belinelli's hot shooting to hide Manu's ice-cold touch and dug up Aron Baynes to shore up the rebounding when neither Duncan not Splitter were on the court. Mills did a great job of making Parker's mid-game injury in game 5 a non issue. Those guys didn't make a huge impact individually, but as a group they allowed Pop to have options to mix and match.
Parker is still essential to the Spurs' chances
I think only a fool would argue otherwise. But with Mills playing great all season long, Manu returning to form and Leonard is seemingly improving daily, it was tempting to downplay Parker's importance in favor of a "all that matters is the team" narrative. In reality, Parker is the Spurs' most important player. The fantastic team defense and selflessness on offense goes out the window without someone who can create on his own consistently despite being the main recipient of the opponent's defensive attention. And right now, Parker is the only Spur that fits that description.
While correlation doesn't mean causation, the fact that Parker's numbers have greatly suffered in losses during these playoffs is telling. When the Spurs' point guard manages to be effective, either as a scorer or as a playmaker, San Antonio is simply exponentially harder to beat. As important as I think depth can be in a seven game series, having a player performing at a superlative level is even more necessary. Ginobili, Leonard and Duncan are capable of it, from time to time. But Parker is more likely to do it on a game-to-game basis.
The downside to that thinking is that the Spurs are extra susceptible if a team manages to contain Parker. He is the head of the snake, after all. But the same could be said of the best player of any other team. And one edge a veteran like Tony has over other players is that he actually forces the opposition to take him out of a game by conceding something else instead of hurting his team with mistakes. And that's not a small thing at this point in the post-season.
Does this all mean anything against the Thunder?
As I was writing this, the Thunder closed the series against the Clippers and will face the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. That's much the same OKC team (minus Harden, plus Evans and Adams) that beat the Spurs two years ago and swept the season series. Can the Spurs' bigs be effective against them? Can Parker play like a star against a super athletic team hellbent on reducing his impact? And if not, can Manu step up consistently? Will the Spurs depth actually be of help against mutant/aliens that can play 40+ minutes a night?
At some point in the series, we will all be tempted to wonder if there is no magic fix to whatever problem arises. Maybe a deep bench big should get starter minutes. If Manu's shot is off, he should just be benched. Parker can't create? Bring in Mills. And if the bench is not looking stellar, just shorten the rotation.
Doubt will creep in, as it usually does when the stakes get higher. But never forget that we are not the only ones worried. What happens if Splitter continues to be aggressive and Diaw abuses the jumpy Ibaka on the post? What happens if not only Tony sustains the high level he has showed on his best nights but Good Manu also makes an appearance after getting some rest? And if the bench checks in and hits shots, game over, man!
The Spurs got to this point by figuring out their strengths and playing to them. I'm looking forward to whatever adjustments Pop makes as they prepare to face their toughest challenge yet this season. But remembering what made this team great in the first place, flaws and all, brings me more peace of mind as a fan than dreaming of surprise tweaks. The Spurs are really, really good and if they play like we know they can, they can beat the Thunder. They know it and OKC knows it. Bring on game 1.