It is never very pretty. OK, it is almost always ugly. The from-the-hip sweeping hooks, the seven up-and-unders before inexplicably fading away on the baseline, Tiago Splitter's game has been difficult to lay eyes on at times thus far in the young season. He seems so far removed from the smooth progression in the pick-and-roll game he exhibited for much of last year, when he crumbled down the stretch in the playoffs. But what we're witnessing appears to be his evolution into a different sort of player, one of physicality rather than European finesse.
It is still early and this could only be a mirage, but it looks like Splitter is starting to play some defense.
The detractors would tell you the stats suggest otherwise. And after all, numbers never lie. Tiago is across-the-board bad in almost every statistical category on both sides of the ball. Those numbers tell you he is offensively and defensively less efficient in fewer minutes per night than he was last year, and even then he wasn't all that great, apart from his points per possession off the pick and roll. This season he's turning the ball over more; he has a higher foul rate; he's scoring fewer points, and at a lower percentage.
Splitter's never been known for his defense. In fact, he's often been a part of San Antonio's worst defensive lineups, showing the flaw in the idea that all the Spurs needed was another decent big man in order to make more of an impact on the that side of the ball. In addition to defense not being Splitter's strong suit, as part of the second team he's usually not surrounded by the best defenders. While the bench is deep, it has a poor reputation for defense, and Tiago is not a player who can single handedly change a game like Tim Duncan. Bottom line: Splitter's on-the-floor defensive numbers are hardly a direct result of his own efforts.
So, fast forward to Tuesday night in another game he started against the Lakers, which seems like the only opponent he starts against when the Spurs are full strength. It was the first time this year he played with the starting unit, and the spacing and chemistry were noticeably off. That is something that should be expected to affect efficiency on both ends, especially while going against a starting lineup consisting of Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. It's not like you have to strain your neck to see why his numbers in L.A. reflected a bit of a struggle.
But Splitter has been noticeably more physical in the paint this year. Yes, it is only an observation based on the eye test, but I like to think my vision is capable of discernment. I don't need to refer specifically to a calculator to realize the potential for progress in an area of Tiago's game we've yet to see. It is not just scoring the Spurs need; it is the inside presence, the help for Duncan that's been a major point of discussion for the last five years.
Even if Splitter's just bumping opposing bigs and pushing them around a bit, it gives Timmy a break. Splitter was messy against the Lakers. He had some clumsy offensive possessions and some sloppy fouls. But when Duncan wasn't guarding Dwight Howard in the post, task of defending one of the league's most dominant big men fell to Tiago. Dwight did get 15 rebounds, mostly due to a glut of opportunities stemming from terrible shooting. But Howard only pitched in 13 points, while giving the ball away six times (hardly an efficient performance) as a result of the pressure from the Spurs' bigs.
"Tiago does the same thing game in and game out. He's a guy that knows what his strengths are, he knows what his role is and that's to play the best defense he can and rebound," Gregg Popovich said prior to tip against the Knicks. "(In the Lakers) game he got the biggest rebound of the game, so that's what he does consistently."
Tiago's hero-ball drive down the lane with a little more than a minute remaining was cringe-worthy, and I am sure it had Popovich thinking the 29 minutes Splitter recorded was at least one too many. But perhaps the Brazilian big man earned it. If anything, he made up for it by corralling the final loose ball of the game after pushing, punching and battling with Howard for much of the night.
It's not always pretty with Tiago, but it is not really his job to be pretty. He is there to take some of the physical pressure of a 15th season off the back of the greatest power forward of all time. Pop needs Duncan to get a little break. He needs someone to make it ugly at times.
Or at least a little nasty.