We've made it: we're back in the NBA Finals once again. Very few thought we could do it, and what many thought would be a depressed, over-hill Spurs team ended up being a very hungry, motivated one. Over the past two seasons we've exorcised our demons of both playoff and regular season past. Last year we figured out the big, bad Memphis Grizzlies and got rid of the painful memories of 2011. This year we figured out the pesky Portland Trailblazers and slowed down LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Finally, we stabbed the demons of 2012 in the gut with a rousing series win against the hyper-athletic OKC Thunder, while also proving that Serge Ibaka is in fact mortal no matter how quickly he can recover from seemingly devastating injuries.
Now, it's time to throw that final demon back into the fire by facing the Miami Heat head on to at least ease (if not erase) the worst memory in franchise history. It is one that is uttered with the same whisper as Him from The Powerpuff Girls or Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. That entity is simply known as "Game 6". It was as close as any team has ever gotten to winning a championship without doing so, and while most people remember that, some apparently don't. Look no further than Tim Duncan's post game press conference the other night when he got rather annoyed (for him) with a reporter who was treating last year's Finals series like it wasn't even close and the Spurs never had a chance. Timmy was quick to remind him that we had that series won before it slipped away.
However, as many times as we'll have to listen to those references to Game 6 and re-watch Ray Allen's shot, there's another topic that the media seems to remember and revisit probably more than necessary, and that's Tiago Splitter's role (or lack there of) in last year's finals. The lasting image is him being blocked on a dunk by LeBron James and only playing 4 minutes in Game 7. It was unfortunate for him, but too many people (cough*, Bill Simmons) took that one play to heart while calling his new contract of 4 years, $36 million bloated (he's far from the last person to get blocked by Lebron, believe me).
He may have underwhelmed a little during the regular season thanks to some injuries, but he has more than made up for it in these playoffs, especially in the first two rounds where he played superb defense on Dirk Nowitzki and Aldridge. Many, including Simmons, finally recognized his value to the team and accepted his contract as a good one.
All that being said, Splitter still has one weakness (besides his soft shot), and that's playing against quicker 4's who can stretch to the 3-point line. The question is, is that really his fault? And with the Spurs' roster flexibility is that really a problem or something that needs to be monitored during these Finals?
To me, criticizing a traditional center for not being able to guard the arc is like criticizing a point guard for not being able guard a seven-footer in the post. It takes a special talent like Boris Diaw - who isn't a traditional anything - to be able to do that, so how is that Splitter's fault? All this came to mind when I read this series preview from Bleacher Report, where they surprisingly dedicated an entire section to Splitter. Here is some of what they had to say:
I couldn't disagree more, especially with that final sentence. We'll ignore that they completely forgot how well he did against Dirk and LMA. What Splitter was signed for was to get the Spurs past the bigger teams in the league (Portland, Memphis, the Clippers, etc), not the smaller, more athletic ones. So what if he isn't the best match-up as a starter against OKC or Miami? Pop has slowly recognized that Tim and Tiago shouldn't be on the floor together against these teams for spacing reasons and has adjusted accordingly.
In my opinion Splitter did just fine coming off the bench in the last two games against OKC (and I might add he handled it very well, which is something that can't be said for many players). By staggering his minutes with Tim's, Pop made sure he always had a capable seven-footer on the floor to defend and rebound. It worked wonderfully as no one on OKC's bench could score inside, and on the other end Splitter made crisp passes and got to the foul line with relative ease. What more could you ask for from him?
When all is said and done, Splitter may or may not be a big a factor in these Finals, and that's okay. If this isn't the role he is destined to play, then so be it. Just remember this one thing: Splitter may not be most important role player needed to win this particular series, but he is one who gave us the opportunity to even be here, and that is what he was signed for. I'll leave you with one final question for your thoughts as we wait anxiously for Game 1 to get here: would we have even reached these last two Finals without Tiago Splitter? Think long and hard before you answer...