He came from Brazil

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During the regular season, his “upside” (an euphemism for height and athleticism, usually, or just height in this case) and limited minutes were enough to make many Spurs fans’ mouths water. If the Spurs were at the top of the league without a honest-to-goodness backup center, what could the Spurs be if Tiago became, if Tiago was? The first loss to the Grizzlies only exacerbated that feeling, since Memphis’ success depended largely on the scoring of the Gasol-Randolph twin towers. Bonner was easily pushed around, Blair could be shot over, and Gasol was able to play Tim Duncan fairly, one-on-one. Yet losing the first game of the playoffs was old news – the Spurs had been there, gotten the t-shirt.

Losing Game 3 was the proverbial straw the broke the poor camel’s back. The uproar has been heard in every Spurs-centered forum and blog, with threads of all sorts flooding the sites. Fire Popovich, trade Parker, throw Tony Allen in a trunk, burn the AT&T down. And as the insults and wild theories spread, the savior has been anointed: Tiago Splitter must play now.

And why not? Tiago’s strengths are well known by Spurs enthusiasts. He is perhaps the second best defensive big man in the Spurs roster, even trumping McDyess’ bottomless court savvy with his ever-improving help defense and unflappable presence around the hoop. McDyess is hurt, and Popovich has been losing faith in Blair, as evidenced by his diminishing playing time through the series (Game 1: 21:55; Game 2: 13:04; Game 3: 9:37). If there were ever minutes available for Tiago, it is now, right?

I decided to hunt down the statistics necessary to support his status. Stats Cube, NBA.com’s new stats page, is extremely useful for fans trying to investigate head to head match-ups between teams and players. With it, I investigated how Tiago Splitter fared against the Memphis Grizzlies as a whole, and also against the players that he is more likely to guard, in case Popovich decided to heed the popular clamor: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur. The site calculates how teams or players have played with Tiago on the court and on the bench, and compares the results with the season averages. Let’s take a look at the data.

Tiago Splitter has played only 43 minutes against the Grizzlies during the regular season, while accumulating 153 bench minutes. According to Basketball Value’s team versus team analysis, his most significant minutes have come as Tim Duncan’s backup, playing alongside McDyess. Tiago’s presence appears to have little effect on the Grizzlies’ field goals, but their plus-minus shows a marked variation in favor of the Spurs while he’s on court. Unfortunately, Memphis’ offensive rebounds almost double their average when Tiago is on the court. Moreover, Memphis’ shooting percentages at the hoop and in the paint, an area where Splitter’s presence should help, both increase significantly when Tiago is on the court. Tiago’s performance against the three Grizzlies big men can be considered inconclusive because of the small sample size, but Tiago has done well against Zach Randolph, broken even with Darrell Arthur and been obliterated by Marc Gasol.

I am in an odd position. I believe that Tiago should be given a chance to show whether he can have a positive influence in the game, because the Grizzlies have put the Spurs in a hole and they are running out of both options and time. However, I do not believe that he is the key to this series, or even part of it. The series will be won or lost by the team as a whole first, and by our stars second – Tony’s fast break, Manu’s layups, Timmy’s bankers. It is Tony’s decision-making and the accuracy of our 3-point specialists that keeps me up at night, the missed layups and inexplicable turnovers. 98 – 93 – 88, that’s the progression of points scored throughout three games. The Spurs, the would-be offensive juggernaut, cannot score. I wonder, friends, how will Tiago’s airballed free throws and forced hook shots help us score? Or in broader terms, can the Spurs win this series through defense? Is that who they are, who they can become?

Personally, I hope the Spurs regain the identity that brought them here. There is still time.