Splitter struggles to score

By Mike Monroe

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — If Spurs fans have been fretting about the unimpressive numbers center Tiago Splitter has been putting up in the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament, Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich has an explanation.

“I just don’t see much offensive skill there,” said Goodrich, working as an analyst on ESPN’s English language telecasts of the games that will send the top two teams to the 2012 Olympic tournament in London next summer.

“For a guy who was supposed to be one of the best big men in this tournament, maybe the best, he’s really struggled.”

Indeed, Splitter’s offensive performance has been shockingly mediocre and inconsistent. The only NBA player on a very young Brazilian team, which scored a surprising 73-71 victory over host Argentina on Wednesday, Splitter totaled only 17 points in the four games that preceded a 17-point outburst in Brazil’s Thursday victory over Puerto Rico.

A player coach Gregg Popovich has called “a linchpin of the future” for the Spurs got off to a good start in the tournament. He made 7 of 8 shots and scored 17 points in Brazil’s first game, but since he has scored in double figures only once more in the six games that preceded the meeting with Puerto Rico.

He made 6 of 8 shots and scored 16 points, with 10 rebounds, in Brazil’s 79-74 victory over a Dominican Republic team that features Al Horford, the Atlanta Hawks’ two-time NBA All-Star center, and Charlie Villanueva, the Milwaukee Bucks veteran power forward. It was his most impressive performance of the two-week tournament, but he had struggled before breaking out against an undersized Puerto Rican team.

In Wednesday’s game against Manu Ginobili’s Argentine team, the 6-foot-11 center took only six shots — none from more than 5 feet from the basket — and missed them all. Three of them were blocked at the rim, including one by Ginobili and another by former Spurs center Fabricio Oberto, a solid post defender but never a renowned as a shot-blocker.

Splitter’s problems at the foul line also persist.

Though it is clear he is trying to adhere to the revamped free-throw stroke he learned last season from Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, his official free-throw percentage through seven games is 42.4. Three converted free throws were disallowed by the referees because of lane violations by overaggressive teammates, clearly anticipating misses and trying to gain rebounding position.

Those show up as misses on Splitter’s stats, but adding them in raises his accuracy to only 51.5 percent.

The good news for the Spurs? Splitter’s work on the boards and on defense has been solid, if not spectacular. His rebounding average, 7.6 per game, is seventh best in the tournament.

Splitter takes solace in Brazil’s 7-1 record and its victory over archrival Argentina. He feels his defensive presence is more important to Brazil’s team goals than his offensive work, especially when the semifinals arrive Saturday. Olympic berths will go to the winners of the two semifinal games.

“We know that now is the time to play and now is when the games really matter,” Splitter said. “Of course, you have more pressure now. You have everything on the line.

“We have figured out how to (play) defense better. Coach (Ruben) Magnano wants us to have good defense and then start the fast break. That is the key to our game, so I am trying to contribute most on defense and start the fast break. I am not worrying about getting my points. I mostly try to (play) defense and rebound.”

Meanwhile, Splitter awaits the end of the NBA lockout so he can resume working on smoothing the rough edges that have been on display in Ginobili’s home country.

“The good thing with Tiago is that he worked on it right after the season,” Ginobili said. “He stayed for a month and a half in San Antonio and worked with the coaches before the lockout. But it really (stinks) that we can’t work out in our gym or even talk to Pop. It’s really crazy, but it is what it is.”

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