HANGTIME SOUTHWEST — Is Tiago Splitter the most important player on the San Antonio Spurs?
OK, so nobody’s going to make that argument with a straight face, but consider this comment from coach Gregg Popovich: “He’s just healthy and getting consistent minutes, so that’s helping us. It helps Timmy a lot.”
Helping Timmy, as in 36-year-old Tim Duncan, is nothing to sneeze at, especially as the Spurs head into another back-to-back tonight at Milwaukee followed by Thursday’s game at New York.
Thirty-three games into his third NBA season, Splitter seems to have finally put a stranglehold on a starting job. He gives San Antonio a sturdy, 6-foot-11, 240-pound power forward to handle the inside dirty work while lessening the burden and creating space for the ageless Duncan, who is again putting together an All-Star-caliber season.
“I’m the kind of player who to win games sometimes doesn’t mean you are going to score or make all the plays in a game,” Splitter said Sunday before piling up 13 points and six rebounds in a blowout of the Dallas Mavericks. One night later he went 5-for-7 from the floor for 10 points plus a couple blocks in a rout of the Brooklyn Nets.
“The situation is good and that’s what I want to do, come in here, win games, help the team to win,” Splitter continued. “I think we have great offensive guys, everybody can score on this team, so it’s not about scoring every night — be consistent, do whatever Pop wants to do on the court, play intelligent.”
It’s been a slow build for the Brazilian, who turned 28 on New Year’s Day. He’s dealt with some nagging injuries while adjusting to life in the NBA and under Popovich’s unique tutelage. He’s played behind the now-retired Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair, who has bounced in and out of the starting lineup as well as the rotation the last few season, yet was Popovich’s choice to start at the onset of the season.
“I think every day you learn something with him. He is one of the greatest coaches ever,” Splitter said. “Of course, you understand how he thinks, how he understands the game, so it’s easier. It took some time. I took a year to figure out everything and last year I was totally different and felt like a player again last year.”
Now it’s up to Splitter to hold onto the job for the foreseeable future. As a starter he is averaging 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 25.0 minutes, about seven more minutes than he was logging as a reserve.
Where the brawny Splitter can really make a difference for San Antonio and give Timmy the most help is by taking on the brunt of defending the big boys in the West, such as Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge and Serge Ibaka.
“Somebody asked me a while back what has he improved in. I said nothing. He just hasn’t played,” Popovich said. “What he does for us now healthy is what he’s done in Europe for a lot of years. He’s been on championship teams over there. He’s a defender, a rebounder, a solid pick-and-roll player. He doesn’t have moves and he’s not a big offensive threat, but he’s every coach’s dream because he does everything so fundamentally sound.”
No, Splitter isn’t the most important player on the Spurs. But on a team that’s been considered too small up front to get out of the West, his importance can’t be understated either.