Spurs face sizable dilemma in Splitter

Spurs center Tiago Splitter wasn’t fazed earlier this week when coach Gregg Popovich informed him he’d be making his first start of the season against the Lakers at the Staples Center.

He was equally unfazed a night later in Sacramento, when he learned he was heading back to the bench, even though Tim Duncan was out.

If Popovich one day told him he’d be starting at point guard, Splitter would make believe he saw that coming, too.

“On this team,” the second-year big man said, “you have to be ready for anything.”

Popovich’s scavenger hunt for a secondary big man to complement Duncan began nearly a year ago, after Memphis’ Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol punished the undersized Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

With another postseason at hand, a relative lack of size remains the biggest — and perhaps only — question mark for a Spurs team with the best record in the Western Conference.

For several games, Popovich has been tinkering with various big man rotations, toggling between the 6-foot-11 Splitter, an undersized DeJuan Blair, the sharpshooting Matt Bonner and 6-8 hybrid Boris Diaw as Duncan’s running mate.

“He’s still learning it himself, along with everybody else,” Duncan said. “We can change from team to team. We can change it mid-game. We can attack people in different ways.”

Tonight, as the Spurs face the Lakers and their frontline of gargantuans for the third time in nine days, Popovich will have another laboratory in which to conduct his size experiment.

The idea of a Twin Towers pairing of Splitter and Duncan has been a cause célèbre among Spurs fans, but one Popovich has been hesitant to embrace.

After watching 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol all but mug the Spurs’ frontline in a 98-84 Lakers victory April 11, Popovich at last relented in the rematch in Los Angeles, replacing his smallest big man with his tallest.

It marked Splitter’s first career start alongside Duncan. The 6-7 Blair, who has started a team-high 59 of 61 games, did not play at all.

“We wanted to match up with their big guys,” Splitter said.

The specific results of the change were mixed, though the outcome — a 112-91 win — was much better for the Spurs.

Plagued by early foul trouble, Splitter was no match for Bynum’s strength on the block.

What Splitter did well was help keep Bynum off the glass. After grabbing a career-best 30 rebounds in the first meeting — part of a 60-33 edge for L.A. — Bynum had just seven in the rematch.

“Tiago does what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a hard worker. He does all that dirty work out there.”

Yet coupling Splitter with Duncan also comes with a downside.

The Spurs have been heavily reliant on their offense this season to win games, and that offense is based predominantly on the pick and roll. Duncan and Splitter are essentially both pick-and-roll big men, rendering one of them redundant when paired.

According to an NBA.com database, the little-used Duncan-Splitter combo rates as one of the Spurs’ worst offensive lineups. It is the reason the two had logged just 108 minutes together before Tuesday.

Therein lies Popovich’s dilemma. In order to address his team’s biggest perceived weakness — a lack of size in the frontcourt — the Spurs must subtract from their greatest strength.

Whether Popovich will give the Splitter-Duncan combination another crack against Bynum and Gasol tonight remains to be seen.

“I don’t know,” Splitter said. “You have to ask Pop.”

All Splitter can do is be prepared.

“You just have to take the opportunity you have,” Splitter said. “If you play four minutes or 40 minutes, it doesn’t matter. Winning is the only job.”


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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