The San Antonio Spurs’ last win came in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder promptly ousted the No. 1 seeded Spurs in the next four games by a combined margin of 9.8 points.
Game 2 wasn’t just significant because it was the Spurs’ final win. It also marked the time when the Thunder began to slowly control the pace in their favor. They did so, in large part because of Tiago Splitter’s inability to knock down free throws.
Splitter “earned” 12 free throw attempts in Game 2, as Scott Brooks pulled a play out of coach Gregg Popovich’s playbook – the intentional foul. The tactic was used to cut the mounting deficit but it also stunted the Spurs’ offense, who scored 55 points in the first half.
They were never the same after, averaging 96.8 points through the final four games. It is unfair to blame Splitter for the debacle, of course, but had he been a serviceable foul shooter, the Thunder would not have been able to impose their will as easily.
At the very least, Splitter improved at the line last season. He converted on 69.1% of his free throws, which is right around Tim Duncan’s career average. If he is able to sustain this efficiency, the Hack-a-Splitter strategy will be less effective.
In an interview with a Portugeese website, Splitter talked about the work he has put in to become a better foul shooter.
“I’ve been training my whole life … I changed the technique after I came to the NBA, how to shoot, and I got a significant improvement to the previous year. I had 55% success in the regular league the next year and 70% last season, so it was a good improvement.”
If the Spurs are going to justify playing Splitter in higher leverage situations, he will need to continue to make free throws at a high enough frequency to dissuade teams from intentionally fouling. By doing so, Popovich will be granted more lineup flexibility — which can be a dangerous thing for opposing teams.
Hat-tip to Lucas Pastore of Spurs Brasil.