Appreciating Tiago Splitter's surprising play

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Tiago Splitter has been playing fantastic two-way basketball so far in the playoffs. Instead of wondering if he can sustain it, maybe we should simply take some time to appreciate it

Tiago Splitter has been having a great post-season and just had arguably his best game as a Spur to help San Antonio regain the lead in the series. I wanted to write about how great he has been but I was hesitant. Anyone who has read what I've written about Tiago knows I've been a supporter of his and I felt writing something a day after such a great performance could be perceived as a "see? I told you so!" boast. But believe me when I tell you that instead of a premature and misplaced feeling of vindication, what I feel is utter awe for Splitter's performance so far because no one - and that includes me - thought Tiago would be this instrumental for the Spurs' chances against the Mavs.

So forget about all the talk from the past. Tiago Splitter is dominating in the playoffs and that story doesn't need a broader context or a redemption arc to be the most interesting thing going on in the series.

Shutting down Dirk

Dirk Nowitzki is averaging 18 points per game on 17 shots for the series. He has gone 1-7 from three. Those sub-par marks on shooting efficiency wouldn't be as damming if he was setting others up but Nowitzki is averaging more turnovers than assists. And Splitter has been the main reason why he hasn't been himself.

With both Tiago and Dirk on the court*, The Spurs have outscored the Mavs by 20 points in 135 minutes. With Dirk playing but Tiago sitting, the Mavs have outscored the Spurs by 21 points in just 54 minutes. Nowitzki is shooting 50% at the rim when the two share the court and only 40.5% from mid range. Those numbers climb to 66.7% (2-3) and 52.9%, respectively, with Tiago is on the bench. And Tiago is hounding him without fouling, too. Dirk takes a free throw once every 10.3 minutes with Splitter on the court and once every 4.9 minutes when Tiago rests.

Those numbers are crazy. This is surefire first ballot Hall-of-Famer, offensive savant Dirk Nowitzki we are talking about. The guy that redefined the power forward position almost by himself. And the Spurs, with Splitter spearheading the effort, are containing him.

"I think they're forcing me to play off the dribble. It's not any secret at this point I'm not the greatest driver anymore. They're just taking my airspace away. That's what the good teams have done over the last few years," Dirk said. That is true. Tiago is showing his hands at all times but puts his chest on Nowitzki, taking away the space he needs. Splitter doesn't fall for pump fakes and simply uses his length to contest when Dirk pulls up. He stays glued to Dirk on pick-and-rolls or hedges and recovers quickly, taking away the pick-and-pop game that has killed countless teams before. He is defending Dirk as well as he can possibly be defended.

More than reverse layups

Splitter was an average finisher at the rim during the regular season. But not this series. Splitter is finishing at a 72% rate at the rim, 12 percentage points above league average. At a time in which the usually reliable offensive players have wavered, his eleven points in 62.9% shooting have never been more needed, his 2.8 assists never more instrumental to keeping the ball moving.

But it will never be about points for Splitter. "Sometimes you cannot score like (Nowitzki or Tim Duncan). I mean, I don't have talent to do that. You've got to bring game in other ways. If it's on defense, helping, rebounding, passing the ball, pushing the transition just to make their defense aware. Just little things that help the team win."

He has been doing the little things, alright. He ranks third on the Spurs in free throw attempts per minute. He leads the Spurs in offensive rebounding. And then there's the screening.

Splitter has tirelessly set up picks for the guards, time and time again. The Mavs switching schemes sometimes force the offense to set multiple screens and at different heights and Tiago has done that relentlessly and forcefully, trying to free Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Patty Mills. He's one of the best pick flippers in the league, changing the angle of a screen as many times as necessary. Keep in mind that for a long portion of the series there was no dive to the basket that would make it all worth it from an individual standpoint. Tiago wasn't stepping outside and absorbing contact because he was looking for the reward of an easy bucket as a dive man.

Similarly, no one seems to notice how Splitter sprints up court after misses to set a drag screen before the defense is set. The Spurs have not been able to use their secondary break as effectively as they did in the regular season for a number of reasons that include an inability to secure rebounds and the Mavs placing great emphasis on transition defense. But no one can blame Splitter of resting in his laurels after forcing Nowitzki into a miss. He puts his head down and tries his best to catch up to the ball handler.

By his own admission, Tiago does the little things. But sometimes the little things end up being huge.

The Tiago Game

Game 5 was pivotal. A loss would have forced the Spurs to win in Dallas to stay alive, then win again in San Antonio to advance. The Spurs played their best game of the series, with five players finishing in double digits and the team combined for 24 assists. But the Mavs rode a ridiculous shooting night from Vince Carter and made it a tight game going into the fourth quarter. Splitter had a very typical stat line for him over the first three quarters: eight points, six rebounds and an assist. He had defended Dirk well and he'd gotten the Spurs a couple extra possessions on the offensive glass.

The Spurs seemed to be in control, as long as nothing strange happened. But what San Antonio had avoided for the entire series, their worst nightmare, materialized: Dirk Nowitzki got hot. A layup by The Big German cut the lead to six before a timely Manu three got it back to nine. It was clear one of Ginobili, Parker or Duncan was going to have to catch fire as well to prevent the upcoming onslaught. Instead it was Splitter who basically matched Dirk bucket for bucket. Nowitzki finished the final frame with 14 points and five rebounds. Splitter countered with nine points and six rebounds as well as four assists.

Dirk went nova, hitting tough outside shot after tough outside shot while the Spurs destroyed the Mavs on the other end with pick-and-rolls Splitter finished strongly. Tiago got offensive boards, salvaging wasted possessions. He found cutters for easy buckets. And he continued to play defense and rebound. For a quarter in a decisive game, Tiago Splitter was the best big man on the court by far, despite sharing it with two of the best seven-footers ever.

The temptation here is to speculate about the future, to extrapolate. Has Tiago turned a corner or is this a fluke of a performance that he won't ever come close to matching? I, for one, will go against my instincts and pass on doing that. When it comes to Tiago and this series, I've been enjoying the ride too much to taint it with cautious optimism, skeptic restraint or unabashed excitement about what will come next. I'm normally wary of dwelling in the past. But just this once, I'm taking a moment to fully appreciate one of the most pleasant surprises the Spurs' season has offered us before the hectic pace of the playoffs washes its shine away.

*It should be mentioned that when Splitter and Diaw are both on the court, Boris sometimes takes the assignment.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats. Quotes courtesy of SAEN's Spurs Nation

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