After two tough losses, the world was clamoring for Pop to make an adjustment. The obvious tweak would have been to sit Splitter and start Diaw. Pop chose to start Bonner instead. That allowed San Antonio to have one rim protector and one stretch big on the court at all times. But did that adjustment propel the Spurs past the Thunder in game 4 or is it more complex than that? Let's start from the beginning.
Why Splitter had to sit
The Thunder defend similarly to the Miami Heat, by trapping or at least showing high on ball screens and sending help from the weak side. On high pick and rolls, they are not afraid to help from the corners. They believe their quickness will allow them to recover and are more often than not right.
When Ibaka is there to anchor their defense, it gets supercharged, as the perimeter guys collapse but don't commit, letting Ibaka meet drivers at the rim and simply limiting the interior passing option. That allows them to close out quickly and makes their defense, when it's clicking, extremely hard to score on. Splitter and Duncan playing together was allowing them to play that ideal version of their D, as there was no need to for either of their bigs to step outside at all.
So all the Spurs needed to do was start a stretch big, right? Not so simple. The Thunder simply don't react to floor-spacing bigs the way other teams do, at least not when Diaw and Bonner are the threats. They keep overloading the strong side, zoning up in the weak side and helping from the corners even against three point threats.
But even if they didn't honor the shooting bigs, the initial position of their power forward was often different than it would have been with Splitter there. Because Splitter has no range on his jumper, his best bet to create space is to stand behind the backboard on the opposing block, but that allows Ibaka to be in prime position to provide help. Bonner, just by standing around the arc, puts Ibaka on a different position.
Ibaka still helps off of them but he's not in ideal position. So the stretch bigs had that going for them, and that's about all of the difference (X's and O's wise) that Pop's move made. So how did San Antonio's stretch 4's do?
The Spurs didn't need Bonner because they ran
In Bonner's first stint, San Antonio simply didn't need his half court spacing much because they ran like crazy. As soon as the rebound was secured, the Spurs pushed the ball. They knew they had to attack before the defense was set. Here are the Spurs' first nine offensive possessions.
1) Duncan-Parker pick-and-roll. Ibaka leaves Bonner to help on the roll, then recovers when Parker passes to Matt. Bonner tries to drive, then passes to Duncan who takes a mid-range jumper with the clock winding down.
2) Parker pushes the ball, gets to the middle and finds Green for the secondary break corner three. He connects.
3) Leonard pushes the ball, gets to the middle and finds Parker in the corner for a secondary break three. He misses.
4) Parker pushes the ball, gets to the rim but misses a layup. Duncan rebounds and scores.
5) Parker pushes the ball up court, fakes a drive and hits a close jumper
6) Duncan pushes the ball. When nothing is there, he passes to Parker. Bonner sets a screen and the Thunder switch it. Parker attacks Ibaka and gets his shot blocked.
7) Leonard drives early in the shot clock, draws a foul from Perkins.
8) Leonard posts up Jackson. Both Ibaka and Perkins help and Leonard finds Duncan under the rim. Jackson fouls.
9) Since Duncan inbounds, Bonner is the post instead of the trailer. The Spurs try to clear one side of the floor for the Parker-Duncan Horns give-and-go but OKC creates a turnover.
Bonner comes out.
There are four half court plays there - 1, 6, 8 and 9. The Spurs only score on one, with free throws for Duncan on play 8. In that play, Ibaka did leave Bonner to help but, as mentioned, was not in a good position. The other bucket in which Bonner plays a part is on that Duncan put back. Ibaka stays close to him on the secondary break, surely aware that Bonner loves those opportunities.
So Bonner did make an impact on offense by changing the angle of Ibaka's help. But the Spurs did a good job scoring druing his minutes primarily because they pushed the pace. After that first stint the Thunder mostly decided go small with Caron Butler on Bonner. He spaced the floor as much as any other shooter would have at that point.
Matt did his job and held his own against the smaller Butler once the Thunder adjusted. But his contributions weren't that impressive. BoBo, on the other hand, was great.
Boris Diaw is so much more that just a floor spacer
When Boris first checked in he had a rough start. Ibaka hit a couple of jumpers on him and Perkins snatched an offensive rebound that should have been Boris'. Initially, the Thunder weren't playing much attention to him outside but at least Ibaka wasn't always in position under the rim. But that changed in the third quarter. That's when Ibaka simply stayed close to the paint and ignored Diaw.
If he wasn't really spacing the floor, why was Boris such an instrumental part of the win? Because he isn't just a stretch big man, he is just a fantastic offensive player. Diaw received kick outs and, except for the two threes he hit, generally tried to create from that position by either driving or passing. Boris had three dimes and two secondary assists. He posted up Ibaka. He acted as a safety valve on short rolls. He even blocked a Durant dunk at the rim!
Diaw hit two threes and those were necessary for the role he was asked to play. He also passed up countless others, but unlike games in which he looks aimless, he still managed to contribute in other areas. It wasn't Boris Diaw: Floor Spacer that helped the Spurs, it was Diaw, the multi-talented offensive player that helped win game 5.
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So Bonner and Diaw did provide some semblance of spacing that would have been impossible to create with Splitter and Duncan on the court together. One of them should definitely start game 6. But, for once, it wasn't spacing that revived the Spurs' offense. Pushing the pace made the initial difference, then the guards hit outside shots, attacked the rim and moved the ball. The defense was great and they had inspired performances from Duncan and Ginobili. And Diaw, despite not being the typical stretch 4, did a fantastic job of taking advantage of every little chink in the Thunder's armor by showing his full arsenal.
Sometimes it's less about the adjustments and more about simply outplaying your opponent. The Spurs were the better team in game 5. Let's hope they can repeat that performance in game 6.