SALT LAKE CITY – A year ago as a rookie, Tiago Splitter got a very small taste of his first NBA playoffs as the Spurs were getting pushed and shoved and banged around and eventually eliminated in the first round by the Grizzlies.
So when Splitter took a hard fall and landed on his left wrist in the first quarter of Game 1 against the Jazz this time around, he had a flashback and a bad feeling.
“When it happened, yes, I was scared,” said the 6-foot-11 power forward. “Thank God it’s not serious so that I cannot play. I thought it was going to be the end of the season. I was lucky it was nothing, just a bruise.”
Turns out it was the Jazz who were not so lucky. After an MRI revealed no structural damage and Splitter was held out of the second game as a precaution, he returned for Game 3 and played a key role in the 102-90 victory.
Splitter scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds and played strong on defense against the Jazz big lineup when Utah was making its last bid in the second half. First, Splitter was able to give Tim Duncan needed rest late in the third quarter and then he eventually joined Duncan in tandem when the Jazz’ Derrick Favors began to do fourth quarter damage in the low post.
“I thought Tiago was huge for us,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “When he was out there and Tim was on the bench, he rebounded really, really well. He scored for us. Then when Timmy came back and we were having a tough time with Favors down there, we brought Tiago back and I thought the combination of the two of them really helped us on the boards.”
It’s been a steady progression for the 27-year-old Brazilian, who had starred in Europe before joining the Spurs prior to last season. He suffered a strained heel injury at the start of his first NBA training camp that cost him valuable time adjust to the new league and team and wound up playing catch-up all season.
When the Grizzlies were beating up and going through the Spurs big men last spring, Splitter was mostly a spectator and didn’t get much playing time until near the end of the series. He played only 51 total minutes in the entire six-game set.
“All I remember was that Memphis played very well against us, very aggressive,” Splitter said. “Zach Randolph made a helluva playoff and that’s all I remember.
“The thing is I didn’t play that much all season, so he (Popovich) doesn’t want to change that much in the playoff, the way that we play. This year I play more during the season, so it’s different.”
Splitter played 19 minutes per game this season, averaging 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds. He’s quick, crafty and efficient around the hoop, shooting at a clip of 61.8 percent and plays aggressive on defense.
With the Spurs holding a 3-0 lead on the Jazz, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to San Antonio’s semifinal series. Whether it turns out to be the Clippers or Grizzlies, one of the challenges will be to again match up with size on the front line against either Blake Griffin or Randolph. Splitter gives Popovich another option in the matchups.
“Yeah, I feel more comfortable,” he said. “Playing more minutes is the way to learn things. When you’re on the court you start to learn. When you make mistakes you learn. So that’s what happened this year. I played from the tipoff to season and just feel more comfortable on the court. It’s not that I’m different player.”
Just one more reason why this year’s Spurs are deeper than an oil well and gushing.