Splitter facing critical stretch run

DENVER — It has taken rookie center Tiago Splitter nearly an entire season to learn all the devilish details of the Spurs’ offense, as well as the intricacies of their defense. In between, he’s had to adjust to a new hometown, a new country and a new league.

There was at least one thing Splitter did not require much time to learn when he joined the Spurs in July. In fact, he knew it long before he had ever set foot in South Texas.

“Tim Duncan is a great player,” Splitter said. “Nobody can play like him.”

Over the next few games, and perhaps more, Splitter vows to give it his best shot.

Duncan was on crutches Tuesday, a day after suffering a sprained left ankle in a victory over Golden State. With Spurs officials ruling him out for at least the three-game road trip that opens tonight in Denver, he was not on the team’s charter plane leaving San Antonio International Airport.

An MRI taken earlier in the day revealed no structural damage in conjunction with Duncan’s sprain, which doctors rated somewhere between a Grade 1 and the more severe Grade 2. Duncan suffered a similar injury to his right ankle on March 20, 2005, but returned in time to fuel the Spurs’ run to their third NBA championship.

“It structurally looks good,” general manager R.C. Buford said. “We’ll have a better idea of what the timeline is in the next 48 hours.”

In the meantime, the absence of a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the middle of the lineup should afford Splitter the chance he’s been awaiting all season.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich could start the 6-foot-11 Splitter in Duncan’s place, as he did Saturday against Charlotte, when the perennial All-Star was given a routine night off. Or Popovich could return to DeJuan Blair, who started the first 63 games.

Either way, Splitter is set to face a stretch that, for better or ill, could define his rookie season.

“This,” Manu Ginobili said, “is the opportunity he’s been waiting for.”

In a way, the stakes are higher for Splitter than they are for his team. Given that the Spurs boast a seven-game lead over the L.A. Lakers in the Western Conference race with 12 to play, Duncan’s injury poses no clear and present danger to their pursuit of a top playoff seed.

If Splitter can earn Popovich’s faith now, perhaps he will be ready to make a contribution once the playoffs roll around.

Splitter, a 26-year-old Brazilian who was the Spurs’ No. 1 draft pick in 2007, arrived in July amid fanfare generally reserved for visiting heads of state.

He came billed as the Spurs’ missing ingredient — a long, tall counterpart to Duncan whose 10 years of pro experience overseas would allow him to become an immediate rotation piece. He had just led his Spanish League team, Caja Laboral, to a championship and earned MVP honors for the regular season and league finals.

A calf injury set him back during training camp, and after the Spurs raced to the top of the standings without him, Splitter found himself affixed to the end of Popovich’s bench.

“I think everybody wants to have a big role on the team,” said Splitter, who has appeared in 49 of a possible 70 games. “Sometimes, it’s not possible. Sometimes, it’s a situation where you have better guys to play that time at that position.”

Popovich has been pleased with the workmanlike Splitter, calling him “a grunt that every team needs and every coach loves.”

In his first start Saturday against Charlotte, Splitter logged a solid eight points and six rebounds. After Duncan went down in the first quarter against the Warriors, Splitter took his spot in the rotation — even starting the second half — and finished with his first double-double (10 points, 14 rebounds).

In two games as a de facto starter, Splitter has also displayed impressive IQ and footwork on defense.

“As I said a million times, he’s a good player,” Ginobili said. “He’s just got to be out there and feel confident and know the team trusts him. That’s what happened to me, what happens to everyone who comes here for the first time.”

Splitter’s value, teammates say, is that he knows who he is. Just as importantly, he knows who he is not.

“I’m not Tim Duncan,” Splitter said. “I’m just the new guy here who wants to help the team.”

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