SAN ANTONIO -- Four Spurs were in street clothes tonight, dealing with injuries bad enough to keep them out of a game. Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson and Danny Green, all vital role players, sat on the second row of the Spurs bench along with Patty Mills. But as has been the case over the last two seasons, it mattered little against an inferior opponent. It took a while, but the fourth quarter belonged to the San Antonio reserves as the Spurs pulled away to beat the Bucks, 110-99.
We've become accustomed to this sort of game from the silver and black as of late: a slow start with poor shooting, only to come back and win. But given the current injury situation, one can't complain too much of any perceived inadequacies from night to night. Still, there they were again after shooting only 39 percent from the floor, trailing at the break to a team that shot a blistering 55 percent during the first two quarters. But in a first half that saw the Spurs hit only one of the 11 three-point attempts they took, it was the other elements of the box score that pointed to the fact they weren't actually playing a bad game. They weren't turning the ball over, they were outrebounding the Bucks and they were hitting their free throws. None of those things matter much when the shots aren't falling, but one thing we know about the Spurs is generally, it's only a matter of time before they do.
In somewhat of a role reversal, San Antonio scorched the earth in the second half at nearly a 57 percent clip from the floor - 50 percent from deep - as it outscored Milwaukee 58-41 after the break. Three Spurs - Gary Neal, Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter - scored double-digits in the second half alone, and the bench blew the doors off the Bucks in the fourth quarter. Tied at 79 heading to the fourth, the lineup of Neal, Splitter, Nando De Colo, Matt Bonner and James Anderson ran away from the Bucks with an 18-3 run to start the final period. (Technically, Parker entered the game for Anderson before Neal's free throw accounted for the 18th point of the run, but if you're into pointing out stuff like that, then whatever, bro.)
We've seen this bench produce at a high level and in wildly entertaining fashion before, but considering the importance of the players who were on the bench unable to play, the "next man up" mentality has really taken true form with this team. Anderson, De Colo and Cory Joseph have all spent time in the D-League this season, but there they were once again contributing on that kind of stage. While a game against the Bucks on Fox Sports Net is nothing compared to that national TV audience they played in front of against the Heat, this was still a game that hung in the balance through three quarters.
"It was our best group all night on the court," Gregg Popovich said of his reserves. "They were really active defensively; they all rebounded."
To say the least. San Antonio outrebounded Milwaukee 53-36 (!!!) in the game and held the Bucks to 30 percent shooting in the second half as the Spurs flipped the script on the Bucks and pushed their record to 15-4 in the process. Bonner, not normally known for his work on the boards, grabbed a season high 12 rebounds. That was his highest total since pulling down 17 in a game against the Jazz on Dec. 11, 2007.
"Matt Bonner was awesome on the boards and on the other end," Pop said of Matt, a player often criticized for his lack of interior presence.
This bench has become a cornucopia of basketball styles, plush with nice ball-handling, passing ability and consistent shooting. And even void of some of its best role players, this Spurs team continues to move along and win in different ways. It's not always pretty and it's been far from perfect, but the way this team is battling and compensating for the absence of typical production is a promising sign. And much of that has to do with the Big 3. Tim Duncan had a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) in less than 27 minutes of action. Parker had 22 points and 11 assists in 35 minutes. Even Manu Ginobili had some nice contributions on a somewhat mediocre scoring night for the Argentine, due to an unusually high number of layups that hung on the rim but refused to drop.
This bench has been great, but it's because of the three mainstays and one of the league's greatest leaders that these reserves have been able consistently produce in the roles outlined for them. It's a great commodity for the time being, but sooner or later it will take more than this bench, not to mention the return of a healthy Leonard, Jackson and Green, to push this team in the direction they prefer to be aimed.
But for now the Big 3 and fill-in-the-blank reserves are winning games, even improbably at times. And the Spurs will take it. As long as Leonard, Jack and Green are in street clothes, they really have no choice.
- This from Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: Splitter scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, joining Neal as the only two Spurs to put up double-digit point totals in three different fourth quarters this season.
- This from Andrew McNeill of 48 Minutes of Hell: "The lineup of Splitter-Bonner-Anderson-Neal-De Colo had a offensive efficiency of 137.1 and a defensive efficiency of 32.9 (!) against MIL."
- Though the numbers don't necessarily reflect it, De Colo and Joseph were solid in limited minutes. For two guys who started the season buried at the end of a deep bench and have bounced back and forth from Austin, they're making contributions and noticeably improving for a team that needs them right now.
- The play of the night came in the fourth quarter when De Colo slipped the ball to a rolling Splitter out of a pick and roll. Splitter then hit Anderson, who was diving to the rim on the baseline. Anderson jumped, appearing as though he was attacking the basket before slinging it to a wide-open Matt Bonner in the opposite corner. Splash. Ball movement doesn't get much better than the Spurs showed on that play.
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