Splitter, Hill have been bright spots in skid

Tiago Splitter has long since ditched the GPS he needed to find the Spurs’ practice facility back in training camp. He has discovered a few places in San Antonio for good Mexican food, though he admits he sometimes prefers to stay in for his wife’s home-cooked paella.

In an even more significant development for the prized rookie center, Splitter is beginning to feel at home in an NBA arena. And he no longer needs a GPS to find playing time.

For the first time, Splitter has begun to feel like a card-carrying member of the San Antonio Spurs.

“I’m getting more confident and feeling like I’m part of the team,” the 25-year-old Brazilian said.

George Hill has been a key member of the Spurs for two-plus seasons already. Unlike Splitter, who had been searching for a feeling he hadn’t yet experienced, Hill’s recent transformation has been about locating a feeling he once had but lost.

“It’s been in my head that I need to get back to being aggressive,” Hill, a 6-foot-3 reserve guard, said after totaling 57 points the past two games.

The downside of the Spurs’ recent four-game slide is evident in the NBA standings. The Los Angeles Lakers have crept within 31/2 games of the top spot in the Western Conference. Chicago looms within 31/2 games in the race for the NBA’s top overall record.

If there is an upside to a losing streak, it is this:

Awarded playing time he might not have found with Tim Duncan healthy, Splitter suddenly looks like a credible NBA big man. Given the freedom and confidence to seek out his own points, Hill again looks like the kind of incendiary bench spark that helps win playoff series.

Splitter had appeared in just 47 of the first 68 games and seemed ticketed for a string of postseason Did-Not-Plays, before Duncan went down with a left ankle sprain March 21 against Golden State. In the past five games replacing the Spurs icon, four of them starts, the 6-foot-11 Splitter has averaged 9.2 points and 8.4 rebounds in 27:50.

“You forget he was the best player in Europe the last couple years,” center DeJuan Blair said. “Now he’s finding his way.”

In Monday’s 100-92 loss to Portland, with Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Antonio McDyess also in street clothes, Splitter at last found his way onto the court in the fourth quarter of a tight game.

Spurs guard George Hill has scored 57 points over the past two games, with one or both star guards, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, on the bench. (Edward A. Ornelas/Express-News)

Splitter didn’t change the outcome — the Spurs, for the fourth game in a row, faltered late — but he almost did. With the Spurs down six in the final two minutes, Splitter unfurled a series of up-fakes on LaMarcus Aldridge that one overexcited courtside observer compared to a Kevin McHale move.

It resulted in a basket and a foul and would have brought the Spurs within three had Splitter not badly missed the free throw.

Splitter, coach Gregg Popovich said, “picks things up quickly.” That includes the tendencies of opposing players.

“Even though I watched a lot of NBA games before I got here, it’s not the same as when you can get on the court and see them work,” said Splitter, who had 14 points and nine rebounds against Portland.

Hill, the Spurs’ fourth-leading scorer and highest-scoring reserve at 11.5 points per game, had lately fallen into a pattern of deference and unselfishness. Those are good qualities for a Red Cross volunteer, but not so much for a sixth man Popovich envisions as sort of a Ginobili-lite.

With Ginobili out for the second half in Memphis, and he and Parker out for all four quarters Monday, Hill had no choice but to look for his own shots, creating them out of whole cloth when necessary.

The result: a 30-point game against the Grizzlies, equaling a career high, followed by 27 points against Portland.

It marks the most prolific two-game stretch of Hill’s career.

“We’d like to continue to see George continue to play with that kind of scoring mentality,” Popovich said. “He’s good at it, and we need it.”

If Hill and Splitter can keep it up, the Spurs might have just discovered two more players who can turn a playoff series.

No GPS required.

Leave a Reply