Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE
The Red Rocket may be losing minutes to the other big men on the Spurs' roster, but he does play an important role on the team.
When you look at the box score, it doesn't look like Matt Bonner did much against the Grizzlies. Three points in four shots, three boards and four personal fouls in almost 20 minutes of play. He was a team-leading +15, but single game plus/minus is flawed, and most Spurs fans have come to expect that from Matty, The Plus/Minus Wizard. But if you watched the game, it was clear Bonner was one of the biggest reasons the Spurs mounted the comeback.
Bonner entered the game with the Spurs down 11, 2:38 to go in the 3rd quarter. After two consecutive Gasol jumpers, the lead ballooned to 15 before a Mills bucket brought it back to 13 going into the 4th. In that two+ minute span in the 3rd, Bonner missed two relatively open three-pointers and a jump-hook and (even though the box score doesn't mention it) committed a turnover. Not a good start but, surprisingly, even then you could see Bonner making a difference on the defensive side.
As you know, the Spurs ended up erasing that deficit in the 4th and forced overtime, all with Matt Bonner on the court. He would hit one three-pointer in the period, his only points of the game, but Bonner would prove essential for the Spurs' run and final victory. How? By defending the pick and roll proficiently, trying to deny position in the post, and boxing out his man. These don't seem so hard to do, but most of the Spurs bigs struggle with those basic tasks.
Nothing Bonner did was especially remarkable on its own. The space he provides really helps the offense, but most everyone already knows this; sending help from the weak side is trickier with Bonner on the court. What he did on defense was not that impressive either. He didn't block shots or get steals or rebound impressively. What Bonner did was make smart play after smart play.
Matt's pick and roll defense was simply fundamentally sound. He hedged hard enough to prevent the ball handler from turning the corner, cut the passing angle as he recovered and got back to his man. He put a body on someone as soon as a shot was up. He contested jumpers well and stuck his arms up and stayed on the floor, instead of trying futilely to block shots. He helped when he needed to. Again nothing impressive, but considering how inconsistent all the Spurs bigs not named Tim Duncan can be on both sides of the ball, having someone like Bonner provide a solid presence for extended minutes was huge. The Spurs held the Grizzlies to 14 4th quarter points on 4-24 shooting, and Bonner was a big reason why. I can't put this in any other way: without Matt Bonner the Spurs don't beat the Grizzlies.
Does that mean Bonner should get more minutes? No. The way Pop has been using him, as a spark off the bench when the game is getting out of control or Diaw and Blair are not producing, is great. If Matty is on the court for extended periods of time and teams get to game plan against him, he simply won't be that effective. And even if he is effective, we know that in the playoffs Bonner simply does not produce as much as he does in the regular season. He's not nearly as bad as some make him out to be, but Matty isn't a difference maker on offense in the post-season. The utter lack respect Bonner gets from the refs (seriously, against the Grizzlies, he was fouled on every box out and Mike Conley was sent to the line after Z-Bo pushed Bonner into him) makes him too much of a liability on defense. And Matt doesn't have a mid-range jumper that would punish teams for chasing him off the line, either.
What I am saying is Bonner is clearly a solid NBA player. He is not some product of Pop's genius or the great teammates he's surrounded with. Of course Bonner wouldn't be as effective with the Wizards, but on this team, and in a limited role, he definitely has value. Those gaudy plus minus numbers? He is as responsible for those as his teammates are. There is something to be said for players that help the offense and know their limitations on defense.
Now, Pop has used Bonner the most on 2nd and 4th quarters, according to NBA.com/Stats and he's responded in limited minutes. Considering the Spurs often try to get Blair involved in the 1st half as a way of gauging how much damage he can do and play Splitter as Duncan's back up, having Bonner play mostly in the second half next to Tiago and, if he's doing well, next to Tim makes a lot of sense. Whenever Diaw and Blair are struggling, Bonner makes an appearance. If they aren't, he only sees limited minutes.
Winter Shoes did not make the case for a different and extended role against the Grizzlies, but he has made it clear throughout his career that he can be solid piece for a good team. Relying on him to repeat the performance he gave against the Grizzlies in a seven game series, much less the entire playoffs, would be silly; like most role players, Bonner depends on the stars and the team as a whole for his contributions to be really meaningful. But to know that the Spurs have the Red Rocket on the bench, ready to come in and simply do his job without making mistakes, is oddly reassuring. If a trade bringing in an upgrade is made, then so long, Matty. But if one doesn't happen, you could do a lot worse than having Bonner at the end of the bench.