Respect the Role Players: How the Spurs Truly Won the 2014 NBA Finals
Fun Fact #1: The Spurs scored 105.6 points per game in the NBA Finals, the highest since the LA Lakers in 2002.
Fun Fact #2: With their fifth title, the Spurs are only the fourth team with at least five championships.
Fun Fact #3: The Spurs set a record for biggest point differential for an NBA Finals (70 points). This surpassed the 1965 Boston Celtics.
Fun Fact #4: The Spurs set a record for the biggest point differential for an entire postseason by outscoring their opponents by 214 points.
Never has a team been able to run so deep. Few teams have a great sixth man to keep a unit going when a star needs some rest. Even fewer can go eight or nine deep and not lose a step. The Spurs have been run by a consistent point guard in Tony Parker and have been guided in the post by the ageless wonder in Tim Duncan. But they couldn't have accomplished this grand feat without a huge team effort. The above numbers (and there are many more) come from the role players - the unsung heroes, if you will. Let's take a deeper look at some of these guys.
Tiago Splitter was a centerpiece for the Spurs throughout the regular season - as well as the first series against Dallas - giving the Spurs a big body in the middle of the lane and under the rim. Matchups relegated him to the bench against the Thunder and Heat, but he still proved to be valuable, notching the highest WS/48 (win shares per 48 minutes) of the Spurs and was second in the same category among players that contributed significant minutes in the 2014 playoffs.
Best Series: vs. Mavericks – 10.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, +/- 3.7 per game
No, I'm not talking about Tony Parker here; I'm looking at the other Frenchman on the team, Boris Diaw. He's the perfect example of a player Popovich picked up and dusted off into a vital piece to the team’s success. LeBron James summed it up perfectly after Game 3 when he stated Diaw was a point forward for the Spurs. For a guy that has made several stops in the league, Diaw has made his mark in this year’s playoffs.
Keep in mind that Diaw, when he was much skinnier, was a part of the run and gun scheme that the Phoenix Suns ran for three years with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire after being with the Hawks (who originally drafted him) for two years. But in his fourth season with the Suns, Diaw didn’t start for the team and got shipped to the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) and toiled in anonymity for the better part of four seasons.
Now Diaw has made his presence known once again and proved to be a secret weapon for Popovich and the Spurs. Coach Popovich gave Splitter chances to start at the beginning of the Thunder series as well as the Heat series but saw the mismatch potential with Diaw on the court. Both the Thunder and Heat had trouble containing Diaw as he could collapse the lane and dish it out to the perimeter or skirt to the perimeter himself and nail a shot from downtown.
Boris Diaw may not have had the biggest games or the most points, but he made the biggest impact more often than not late in the playoffs. He was one the truest definitions of “role player” for the Spurs this year. And while many took notice of him against the Heat, if it wasn’t for his inside scoring against the Thunder (13.2 PPG), the Spurs may have not even had chance to win their fifth title.
Best Series: vs. Heat – 8.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, +/- 14.8 per game
Best Game: Game 1 vs. Heat – 2 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, +/- 30
The Spurs aren’t the Spurs without the grit and determination of Manu Ginobili. Yes, Ginobili is a part of the Big Three, but his role has always been very specific. Tony Parker ran the point, Tim Duncan pounded the rock inside, and Ginobili was always that spark off the bench, the player that upped the pace and got the crowd into the game.
Ginobili has made a living off of being a sixth man that sees starter’s minutes. While Danny Green is officially listed as the starting shooting guard, he always defers to Ginobili when necessary. Manu Ginobili knows how to attack the basket but he can always spot up for a three-pointer at will. In fact, it was often Ginobili and/or Green that kept the Spurs afloat against the Thunder this year. Ginobili is just the tip of the iceberg for the arsenal of sharpshooters the Spurs had during their playoff run.
Best Series: vs. Heat - 14.4 PPG, 4.4 APG, 41.7% 3FG, +/- 16.6 per game
Best Game: Game 7 vs. Mavericks - 20 points, 6 steals, 5 assists, +/- 32
Danny Green has taken a hold of the starting shooting guard role, but plays almost as much as his teammate Ginobili. He may not get to the rim like the Argentinian, but Green can certainly light up the scoreboard from downtown. Green is still inconsistent at times, but the team as a whole was able to mask it more this postseason.
When Green was on, he was dangerous. He would come off pick-and-rolls, catch the ball, and drain the three-pointer. It was going in for him easily in the first two games against the Thunder as he went 11-16 from behind the arc. As Green improves, so will the Spurs; if he can stay more consistent, he'll keep making opponents pay for leaving him open.
Best Series: vs. Thunder - 12.2 PPG, 54.1% 3FG, +/- 9.5 per game
Best Game: Game 1 vs. Thunder - 30 points, 4-5 3FG, +/- 30
How many players can come into a game, play just a few minutes but still drain enough shots to remain relevant in the bench rotation? Not many, but Patty Mills is one of them. He saw more than 20 minutes in a game just twice in the entire playoffs, but still managed to log at least 10 minutes in each game during the playoffs this year. Mills is just another tool in Popovich's tool shed and is a dangerous three-point shooter when allowed to take the shots.
As a point guard on the Spurs, being able to spell Tony Parker for just a few minutes and keep the Spurs' offense humming is a tall order in itself. Add his sharpshooter skills to the mix and you have a prime example for a perfect fill-in for Pop. Unless Cory Joseph leapfrogs him next year, Mills could very well be the future of the team alongside Kawhi Leonard.
Best Series: vs. Blazers - 11.0 PPG, 57.1% 3FG, +/- 7.4 per game
Best Game: Game 5 vs. Blazers - 18 points, 47.1% FG (40% 3FG), +/- 17
Why the nickname of the "Claw" for Kawhi Leonard? Take a look here as to why I hope this nickname sticks. Leonard showed up big when pushed by Popovich and he's here to stay. Leonard may not be a role player much longer, but over the past three years, his role has been learning to take over the team and that's just what he did in Games 3 through 5 against the Heat.
There are some parallels from the 1999 championship team to the 2014 championship team. There was a torch passing from the legend of David Robinson to the kid in Tim Duncan in 1999 and now that kid is a legend himself with five rings of his own. 2014 may proved to be another passing of the torch from Duncan to another "kid" in Leonard. If his performance against the Heat is any indication, he's ready for it too.
Despite being named MVP of the Finals (he was the best choice among a myriad of contributors of the Spurs), Leonard struggled in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals. He averaged only nine points between the two games and got into foul trouble as well, gaining some time on the bench. But Popovich got a hold of the young player and apparently pushed the right buttons.
From Games 3 through 5, Leonard was the catalyst for the Spurs, averaging nearly 24 points a game and shooting over 68% from the field. Leonard had never put together a string of three straight games with 20 or more points each until the Finals and had only one back-to-back set of games of 20 or more points in his career up to this point. He says the right things and does the right things; if this wasn't a coming out party for Leonard, than I don't know what is.
Best Series: 17.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 61.2% FG, +/- 12.4 per game
Best Game: Game 4 vs. Heat - 20 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 58.3% FG, +/- 23
We've seen Leonard go from learning to taking over the team. We saw Boris Diaw resurrect his career with the Spurs. And there can never be too many sharpshooting guards for Popovich's system. Parker and Duncan are the glue of this team, but without the right role players this year, they may have never lifted another Larry O'Brian trophy.