Spurs push Lakers to brink, but lose Tiago Splitter to sprained ankle

LOS ANGELES – Recovering from his recent Achilles tendon surgery, Kobe Bryant arrived at the Los Angeles Lakers locker room on a golf cart Friday night. Some three hours later, San Antonio Spurs center Tiago Splitter needed to use the same golf cart to leave the visiting locker room.

Splitter left the Spurs’ 120-89 Game 3 victory over the Lakers in the third quarter with a left ankle sprain. X-rays were negative and he left the Staples Center on crutches. While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford said they were uncertain how long Splitter would be out, the San Antonio Express-News reported he could be sidelined seven to 10 days. The Spurs have a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven, first-round series and can close out the Lakers on Sunday.

"We will see what happens and how bad it swells," Buford said. "He was in a lot of pain."

Popovich said he was uncertain who will start in Splitter's place for Game 4. Splitter averaged a career-high 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24.6 minutes while starting in 58 of 81 regular-season games. Without Splitter, the Spurs get much smaller against Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

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Forward Boris Diaw started 20 games for the Spurs during the regular season, but underwent surgery to remove a cyst from his lumbar spine on April 12. While Diaw is supposed to be out for about another week, he is progressing well and said he could return as early as Game 4 if cleared by his surgeon. More likely immediate replacements for Splitter are forwards Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair, who combined for 19 points and nine rebounds in 36 total minutes in Game 2.

"It’s going to affect us huge," said Tim Duncan, who had 26 points and nine rebounds. "It’s big losing [Splitter], the big body, especially in a series like this. Hopefully, we can do what we’ve done all season, move things around and get guys ready to play. We’re going to count on Matty and DeJuan to step up and fill that position for us. We’re going to move things around and make it work."

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While Splitter is a big loss for the Spurs, the Western Conference's top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder received much worse news earlier in the day when tests showed All-Star guard Russell Westbrook suffered a slight cartilage tear in his right knee and will need surgery that could possibly end his season. If Westbrook can't return, the Spurs could emerge as favorites in the West.

"Obviously, injuries, especially to [Westbrook] and what he means to their team, can affect them greatly," Duncan said. "I don’t know how long he’s out. I don’t know what it means to all that. Injuries like that happen. We’ve been dealing with them all season long and been fortunate to be without them [recently]. We’ll see how they react to it."

For now, though, the Spurs are more focused on themselves – and how they react to the loss of Splitter.

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