Spurs notebook: Splitter’s free-throw work paying off

For Spurs center Tiago Splitter, shooting free throws was once an adventure.

As a rookie last season, he made just 54.3 percent of them, converting at just better than the rate of “heads” in a coin flip.

“I didn’t have a great mechanic,” Splitter said. “We tried to change it, and it wasn’t easy. You’re changing the way you shot your whole life.”

After a season working with shooting coach Chip Engelland, and a lockout-prolonged offseason spent honing his touch on his own, Splitter appears to be developing into a rarity among Spurs big men — a competent foul shooter.

Splitter is hitting 69 percent of his freebies heading into tonight’s game against Phoenix, having converted 20 of 29. Those numbers will never confuse him for Mark Price, but they do make him a more valuable weapon in the post.

With so much juking and junk in his post game, Splitter can count on drawing fouls and going to the line often.

“If he’s going to make his free throws, we can definitely pass him the ball inside,” point guard Tony Parker said. “He’s going to be a force down there.”

Splitter had made nine consecutive free throws before snapping that streak with a 4-of-7 showing in Friday’s 99-83 win over Portland. He hopes it is a sign that his new shooting mechanic is becoming second nature.

“Sometimes, you make them in practice, then you go to the game, and it’s different,” Splitter said. “You start thinking too much. Now, I just go there and shoot it.”

Talking ’bout practice: For the first time since the start of the regular season, coach Gregg Popovich was able to conduct a full-scale practice Saturday.

The light, 45-minute session was focused mostly on teaching and geared to younger players such as rookies Kawhi Leonard, Cory Joseph and Malcolm Thomas, as well as second-year guys such as Splitter and James Anderson.

“The young guys are still a little confused in the system,” Popovich said. “They need time in it. So the weight room and the film room and the court are all important places for education, and we were able to do all three today.”

Getting defensive: After the Spurs gave up 51.8 percent shooting in a 106-103 defeat at Milwaukee — a performance so porous they lost despite hitting 60 percent — Popovich challenged his players to become more defensive minded.

In the two games since, wins over Houston and Portland, neither opponent has shot better than 42.7 percent. The Blazers made just 40.7 percent of their shots Friday and were held to just 36 points in the second half.

“I like to think it’s increased focus and understanding of who we have to be and what we have to do if we want to win basketball games,” Popovich said. “We’re not an offensive juggernaut by any stretch, so we’ve got to guard people.”

That said, the Spurs do rank fourth in the league in scoring (100.8 points per game). Typically prolific Phoenix ranks 16th at 94.1.

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