San Antonio Spurs Need New and Improved Tiago Splitter to Continue Strong Play

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2014

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 06: Tiago Splitter #22 of the San Antonio Spurs speaks to the media on a practice day following Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at the Spurs Practice Facility on June 6, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs sometimes seem like little more than an amalgamation of secret weapons, role players who quietly step up when needed, only to recede from the spotlight immediately thereafter. These are the Danny Greens of the world, and—increasingly—this is Tiago Splitter.

By virtue of his regular-season production alone, there may not seem to be anything new and improved about Splitter. He actually averaged the lowest marks in scoring and field-goal percentage that he's posted in any of the last three seasons.

All the same, he was pivotal. The Spurs were 33-1 in games where Splitter scored at least seven points.

And he's easily having his best postseason yet.

That's a welcome sign from a guy who seemingly disappeared down the stretch in the 2012-13 playoffs.

Splitter is averaging playoff-career highs in points and rebounds, making nearly 61 percent of his field-goal attempts in the process.  

The 29-year-old was especially valuable in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, a seven-game series that required all hands on deck. Splitter averaged 10.7 points and nine rebounds in the series, posting double-doubles in three straight games before erupting for 19 points in a tightly contested Game 6 loss.

Those numbers won't necessarily turn heads, but they probably should. Splitter isn't one of San Antonio's primary options on the offensive end, so his production has to be put in context. He makes the most of his relatively few touches, getting many of his looks in pick-and-roll scenarios, where he absolutely excels.

The 6'11" center has great hands for a big man, which translates nicely into the ability to catch bullet passes from Manu Ginobili. It also means he can finish with finesse after receiving the pass, going up for a variety of baby-hook shots and layups.

Splitter isn't the most exciting big man in the business. He's not especially explosive and rarely finishes strong.

All the same, he gets the job done. From a production standpoint, you have to like this guy's output. 

You also have to like his timing.

The Brazilian struggled to make much of an impact against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals, largely because head coach Gregg Popovich opted to go a bit smaller and rely heavily on the more versatile Boris Diaw.

Nevertheless, Splitter rose to the occasion in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and he did it when San Antonio needed him most. He had 14 points in just 23 minutes of action, scoring most of them in a third quarter that saw the Spurs on the brink of disaster. The club couldn't stop turning the ball over in the period and quickly found themselves flirting with double-digit deficits.

Splitter to the rescue? No one saw it coming, but the Spurs will take it. Project Spurs' Michael A. De Leon accordingly noted that, "Tiago Splitter came up big from the end of the third quarter to the start of the fourth, scoring nine straight points for the Spurs."

Five of those points came in the fourth as the Spurs looked to just hang around long enough for the shooters to take over.

And, of course, eventually they did.

Splitter certainly didn't win the game single-handedly, but he served as something of a safety valve. When the Spurs offense was struggling to fire on any cylinders, the club opted to work the ball inside and push for some easy baskets. That's Splitter's specialty.

It certainly didn't hurt that he made four of five free throws on Thursday night. That's another improved aspect of the center's game. He's getting to the line 3.5 times per game in these playoffs, twice as often as he did a season ago.

Many of Splitter's contributions go relatively unnoticed. He's a solid passer. He's adept at defending with his hands up and rarely fouls. He sets excellent screens. 

So yes, there's a reason general manager R.C. Buford decided to reward Splitter with a deal that pays him another $26 million over the next three seasons. He's a skilled big man and a hard worker, the kind who does all the "little things" an average fan might not see.

That said, if there were ever a time for the big man to earn all that money, it's now.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 05:  Tiago Splitter #22 of the San Antonio Spurs goes to the basket against Shane Battier #31 of the Miami Heat during Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expr
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The Miami Heat are particularly vulnerable to Splitter's attack. Head coach Erik Spoelstra's club loves to hedge on pick-and-rolls, often allowing a brief window of time in which the screener has some space to operate—at least if the pass comes quickly enough.

Miami also isn't known for having a wealth of big men. Outside of Chris "Birdman" Andersen, there's really no one who can consistently get in Splitter's face. 

That seemed to benefit Tim Duncan in Game 1 as well. The 38-year-old led the Spurs with 21 points and converted on nine of 10 field-goal attempts.

As far as Splitter's concerned, the primary objective is remaining aggressive and ready for the pass. Important as it is to look for shooters on the perimeter, this is a series where there's a premium on San Antonio's bigs doing what they do best: cashing in on easy, point-blank shots.

San Antonio likes to play the percentages and knows that it doesn't get any better than a layup. Splitter doesn't have much range and isn't the most versatile scorer, but he knows what to do two feet from the bucket.

Sometimes that's all you need.