Matt Bonner in a different type of playoff mode
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