It goes without saying that the Spurs missed Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili Thursday night in their blowout loss to Houston, but what got less play from the national media is that Tiago Splitter's absence was almost as critical, particularly against that club, where Dwight Howard completely dominated his matchup with the over-matched Aron Baynes.
In fact, an angle most of the talking heads missed when they were complaining about the Spurs resting their stars is that coach Gregg Popovich probably felt compelled to do it once Splitter and swingman Marco Belinelli went down against the Hawks on Wednesday. Most coaches would respond to injuries to their role players by pushing the starters for extra minutes, back-to-backs be damned. Pop's modus operandi is to go 180 degrees the other way. With Splitter and Belinelli out for a while, it's even more imperative to protect Duncan and Ginobili, to reduce the risk of them going hurt, and the best way to be proactive against that kind of thing is to not play them in a back-to-back.
Anyway, Splitter has long been one of the league's most underrated rim protectors for the simple fact that he doesn't actually block all that many shots, but his length (or "verticality") and ability to move laterally stymies plenty of those pick-and-rolls and lobs at the rim. Splitter's able to hedge out to the high paint to cut off the guard's lob angle and recover in time to negate the roller as well. He was definitely missed against Houston, and he'll continue to be missed for these upcoming games against the Pelicans at home and the Clippers, Warriors and Kings on the road.
Popovich revealed that Splitter has not yet had his visit with a specialist for his chronic calf problem that may or may not be related to a nerve issue originating from his lower back. He also said that Splitter would be on the plane with the rest of the team, but that's he's already "out," for all the games.
[UPDATE: Mike Monroe of the Express-News got the scoop from Splitter himself. He's going to see a back specialist in Los Angeles on Monday and the team's doctors think the problem has to do with a inflamed disc that a post-game MRI on Wednesday revealed. From Monroe's story: ]
"They found a little inflammation in a disc," Splitter said before Saturday's tipoff against the Pelicans at AT&T Center. "Nothing like a hernia or anything like that. It's not a sciatic problem. But it's something that gives me more tension in the nerve of the calf and gives me these problems. We don't know if it is a problem in the calf or the back. It's complicated.
"We're going to see a back specialist and see what he says about it and see what he suggests to do."
That news aside, Pop was expansive on a number of topics. He was pleased that the Pelicans organization has been patient with coach Monty Williams, and for that matter General Manager Dell Demps, both of whom, of course, have ties to the Spurs.
When asked if he had any advice for his protege, Pop offered that Williams is "an all-around class act," who "knows the business," before settling on the one thing he'd change. "If anything he's learned that sometimes you can't control everything that's going to happen and you just do the best job you can and that other people also have to participate in their recovery or improvement and that kind of thing. And he understands that he's a large part of what goes on as the head coach but at the same time he can't beat himself up if certain things go awry now and then. It takes a lot of pieces, a lot of parts to make things work and I think in general I'd like him not being so hard on himself."
He didn't expound on that, but reading between the lines, it sure sounded to me that Pop was referring mostly to the injury problems the Pelicans have had the past couple of seasons but also that he's less than blown away by some of the personnel moves they've made to complement Anthony Davis. To be clear, that's speculation on my part.
One move that most of us basketball nerds, including Pop, have signed off on in a major way is the team's acquisition of Turkish big man Omer Asik. How does Asik change Davis' game, coach?
"Even though Anthony is still doing a fantastic job on the board obviously it does take some pressure off of him defensively, board-wise, Asik takes up a lot of space," Popovich explained. "He's good at the offensive end too, he's a good solid player, he gives them everything Tiago gives us, actually, so I think it's a huge addition to have that kind of a base, the middle taken care of the way he can do it, so he's a fantastic addition to that team."
Finally, Pop was asked if there's any way to defend against the lob play that the Rockets victimized them with so often to Howard. Davis is just as big of a threat to rain down destruction from above, if not more so.
"Jump higher," the coach said, with a sneer. "Come up with a brand new pick-and-roll defense that nobody's ever seen before, and if somebody figured that out the scores would be 12 to 8. It wouldn't be a 102 to 94 or that sort of thing. People are going to score in this league because they're too good."
Well, did the fact that they just played Houston at least help them prepare for the Pelicans?
"Not really. We'll still jump the same height we did against Houston," Pop said.
Okay then. Sounds like it'd be a good time for the fellas to shoot it straight from the outside.