Winter Shoes in Summer
Thursday night's rout we were all scrambling for answers: what exactly went wrong and how can the Spurs fix it? The articles that Fred Silva and Aaron Preine wrote did a fantastic job at breaking down the game for us. The explanation to the first loss in a month and a half:seems to be that the Spurs were neither aggressive nor precise enough on offense, and that led to the Thunder taking over the game with their physicality. It seems straightforward enough: the Spurs lost as a team because they let OKC disrupt their execution.
Trying to figure out which players hurt and which helped is where things get trickier. Stephen Jackson had the best individual performance on offense but it came too late. Parker scored efficiently but turned the ball over too much. The rest of the players played poorly, with only DeJuan Blair getting things done in garbage time. For most of those guys, us fans have patience since it's only the first game where they haven't produced. The one player every Spurs fan seems to agree has sucked the entire series is Matt Bonner.
First of all, let me say that I know that Bonner, throughout his career, has consistently underperformed in the playoffs. Yes, that's a huge part of why people want him chained to the bench in the post-season. That being said, my focus here is on this particular post-season alone.
The first two games of this series against the Thunder, Matt Bonner played 10:50 and 16:59 minutes, respectively. In game 3 he led all bench players with 23:08 minutes. This could be seen as proof that Pop is leaning on Bonner more as the series progresses but when we take into account that Bonner played less in game 1, when the game was close and more in games 2 and 3 when the games had been decided, it seems to suggest the opposite: Pop is limiting Bonner’s minutes in close games and using him to rest his main guys when the game is either under control or out of hand. It hardly looks like Pop is counting on Bonner to be a difference maker and instead seems to prove that Matt Bonner has very little to do with the outcome of games; in fact, he logged minutes in the first quarter of game 3 only after Boris Diaw got himself in foul trouble. Of the 11 games the Spurs have played in the playoffs, Matty has logged less than 10 minutes 3 times and over 20 twice: once barely getting to that number (20:03) and the other being the Game 3 blowout loss.
Even if Winter Shoes is playing too little in close games to be the cause of the Spurs problems, the reality is he's not playing particularly well in those minutes. Here are Bonner’s playoff numbers, courtesy of NBA.com’s advanced stats section.
Here is how OKC is playing with Bonner on and off the court.
Ouch. Those numbers ain’t pretty. The weirdest about them is that they don't correlate with Matt's regular season numbers at all. In the three games the Spurs faced the Thunder, Bonner was the player we know him to be in the regular season: an adequate rebounder and a fantastic offensive player. In this series, Bonner has been nothing short of awful according the splits. In reality, Bonner played pretty well in limited minutes in games 1 and 2 and, like the rest of the team, was fantastically inefficient in game 3, which would tend to skew his numbers.
As for the Red Rocket’s shooting percentages against OKC, that's when things get bad. Bonner is 1-7 from 3-point range and 1-8 overall. For a guy that is supposed to be out there to shoot the rock from deep, that simply isn't enough. What those shooting numbers don't account for is the spacing he provides. I know that all of us are tired of hearing (or reading) that word when it comes to Bonner, but it's pretty much the only reason he's out there, even more than to shoot.
That being said, no amount of spacing can make up for his playoff deficiencies if Bonner isn't shooting and hitting from 3. OKC is doing a fantastic job of closing out quickly before Bonner can let it fly, and that is forcing Bonner to put the ball on the floor, which rarely ends well. In the post-season, they need to keep moving after the original kick-out, anticipating that the defense might get to Bonner. When Matt pump-fakes and drives, there needs to be player movement to take advantage of the scrambling defense and the Spurs don't seem to be doing that -- partially because Matty isn't the best passer when he's on the move.
Finally, it's on Gregg Popovich to figure out when is the right time to play Bonner. Against OKC's small ball lineup or when Nick Collison is in, Bonner is not going to be particularly helpful. Everyone knows what Bonner's strengths and weaknesses are; the Spurs have to play Bonner when it's beneficial and limit his participation when it's not. It's that simple. Send Bonner in to try to take Ibaka out of his game (OKC gets significantly less blocks when Matt is in) and if Scott Brooks adjusts, then take him out. Also, if he's open, the playmakers have to find him. He's out there to take shots and he needs to get the right passes to do so. (Note: everyone should read this article. Hat tip to Stampler for linking to it).
Can't Pop just play Blair instead?
He could but I'm not sure it would help. Like I mentioned, Bonner is not playing enough, and while his flaws are causing serious problems it's also possible that replacing him in the rotation might as well. For all of his limitations, Bonner does provide spacing and when his shot falls, he's a great weapon to have. OKC gets a lot more blocks when Blair is in, due to the fact that Ibaka can simply roam the paint and help on defense without having to be concerned with defending any outside shots. Also, for all of his offensive rebounding prowess, Blair is a mediocre defensive rebounder which means that he won't necessarily help in that area. Furthermore, OKC usually goes small for long periods, and the Spurs should only have one big in the game during those times. Neither Bonner nor Blair should play in those situations, which means that replacing Blair for Bonner in the rotation would only affect a small portion of the game in which the Thunder are playing with two bigs and Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw are the better options.
If the situation calls for energy and aggressiveness, playing Blair could provide the Spurs with some instant momentum resulting from offensive boards and the occasional steal. The problem is, how long can Blair contribute anything positive when his presence enables Brooks to keep two bigs in the game to battle down low and help aggressively on D?
And that is the Bonner conundrum. The Spurs might be better off for short stretches by playing Blair instead of Bonner but that is not certain, while playing Bonner at least provides valuable spacing to run the Spurs' perimeter-oriented offense. In my opinion, the Spurs should keep their rotation as it is and only replace Bonner if it's clear that he's not contributing anything on offense. Right now, there are a lot of variables affecting Bonner's play to make a definitive judgement. That being said, expect Pop to explore going small more often to match the Thunder's lineups and experiment with Blair for short spurts.
Note: this article may or may not be an attempt to reverse-jinx Matt Bonner into decent production.