Matt Bonner in a different type of playoff mode

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Matt Bonner proving the naysayers wrong. For a guy who has a rep as not coming through in the playoffs, Bonner’s doing all right. The Red Rocket/Mamba is averaging 8.3 points per game on almost 55 percent shooting from the 3-point line in the conference finals. He’s also been a major piece of San Antonio’s physical interior defense.

I wrote that over at ESPN.com in Monday’s 5-on-5 previewing Game 4 of the Spurs-Grizzlies Western Conference Finals. It was in response to a question about the most surprising thing from this series so far.

It’s no secret that I like Matt Bonner on a personal level. There’s no air of superiority about being a professional athlete when it comes to Bonner. He’s spent hours upon hours upon days in the gym perfecting his shooting motion, one of the best the game has to offer. He knows he wouldn’t be here without all the work he put in. He’s in total control of that. He’s also probably aware that it would likely be all for naught if he wasn’t 6’10″, something he has no control over.

Bonner treats everyone with respect, like we’re all just people. It’s a simple concept that sometimes goes overlooked in professional sports. He knows we’re there in the locker room, invading his space, because we’re there to do a job. Even if he doesn’t like it, he understands it and lets us do what we have to do.

I also like Bonner as a player with regards to what he brings to the Spurs’ lineup. He’s a great 3-point shooter who spreads the floor for San Antonio’s offense, opening up driving and passing lanes for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili while creating room for guys like Tiago Splitter to roll to the basket. Defensively, he’s always been an underrated team defender, a master at the shell defense rules, while strong enough to play down low with the big boys, which we’ve seen plenty of in this series. In essence, he knows exactly what he is and 99 percent of the time plays within those parameters.

But he’s always been knocked for not coming through in the playoffs. Entering this postseason Bonner was shooting 33 percent from behind the arc in his playoff career, a significant drop from his nearly 42 percent regular season career average. We knew many of the reasons why. Bonner has a fairly slow release on his shot, so when teams are more aggressive with their closeouts he doesn’t get the looks he’s used to in the regular season. Also, teams aren’t worried about what he can do when he puts the ball on the floor, so they sell out on contesting the 3-point shot.

It was so bad that even though Bonner was an ace regular season role player, it looked like he was being phased out of the rotation this season. His 13.4 minutes per game this season were Bonner’s lowest since the 2007-8 season. If Gregg Popovich couldn’t count on Bonner in the playoffs, why use him as a crutch in the regular season? That seemed to be the thinking, anyway.

But here we are in late May. The Spurs are one win away from their fifth trip to the NBA Finals since Tim Duncan came to town, and one of the biggest winners in these playoffs may be Bonner. He’s averaging a hair over five points per game in this postseason and shooting 56 percent from behind the arc. Against the Grizzlies, the same team that held Bonner to 33 percent shooting from 3 in the first round a couple years ago and really perpetuated the “Bonner chokes in the playoffs” meme, the Red RocketMamba is shooting 55 percent from the arc and putting up over eight points a game.

After Game 1 of this series, Jeff McDonald of the Express-News asked Bonner if he was more nervous for the 3-point Shootout than for the first game of the Western Conference Finals and Bonner said he was. He was out there all alone with all eyes on him. For the most part Bonner is anonymous on the floor during a regular game, until the ball gets kicked out to him on the perimeter. It’s not a stretch to think that the pressure he faced during All-Star Weekend, when he was the center of attention for a few moments and rose to the occasion, could’ve helped whatever jitters and nerves he faced in 5-on-5 situations.

So the Spurs go into Monday’s night’s Game 4, with a chance to vanquish the Grizzlies and all those reminders of 2011. A chance for a fifth trip to the NBA Finals with Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan at the helm. There are plenty of legacies that stand to improve with one more win over Memphis, not the least of which is Bonner’s.

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com/Stats

  • Bob

    Bonner is certainly useful in small doses. Yet he’s part of the reason we didn’t win game 3 in regulation. It wasn’t till we went with Splitter/Duncan that we started getting consistent stops.

  • STIJL

    Bonner’s biggest knock was that if wasn’t hitting 3′s he had no other value on the court. That’s changed this year. It’s apparent the hard work and dedication to improve in other areas has somewhat paid off in that he is more useful than just hitting the three.

    And that may have helped in his confidence shooting 3′s this playoff season knowing if he isn’t hitting three’s, he is helping the team in other areas. In other words…he’s playing more loose and fluid than stiff and nervous.

  • funktron

    Still trying to reconcile and process Bonner taking it to the rack on Gasol, hitting the lefty floater hook and one. Everything I ever believed has now come into doubt.

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  • Andrew

    He’s bulked up a bit over the past few seasons as well to be more physical inside on defense. He looks pretty stout out there these days, been hitting the weights.

  • STIJL

    Yeah. I counted twice the defensive player of the year did not close out and…”defend”. The instance with Bonner you spoke of and letting Tony take that mid range jumper in overtime without even raising a hand.

    I’ll take it if Gasol is shutting down.

  • River

    I like Bonner as a player and person but he is way low in his contributions for his position. He is also a NEGATIVE 12 when on the floor so while he does play a little defense…it is spotty at best.

  • DorieStreet

    I second that motion. You noticed it first in the 2011-12 season; instead of passing to a teammate on an agressive closeout, Bonner put the ball on the floor and drive closeup for a baby teardrop, or even go all the way for a layup. On defense, he would bodyup his man with the ball, waving frantically while moving his feet to stay in front of the guy. It didn’t look pretty, but Bonner started getting results with it–a pass off, a charge here and there, a good contest of a shot.
    What he did against Randolph over the last 8 days (yes—it was just over a week!) was inspiring; that even as a veteran player you can still challenge yourself to shore up your weaknesses and improve on the court to help your team win.