San Antonio Spurs 114, Phoenix Suns 97: Slump buster

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AT&T CENTER — Stating the obvious, a number of things went right during the San Antonio Spurs’ 114-97 win over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday afternoon. It started off as a fairly close contest between two old rivals, despite the Suns missing Steve Nash with “flu-like symptoms,” and then George Hill entered the game.

Offensively, Hill dominated the first half for the Spurs. The Spurs guard scored 24 points in the first half, hitting eight of nine shots, including shooting four of five from 3-point range.

“George had another one of those games where he’s aggressive,” Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “When he comes off the bench and gives what Manu used to give us coming off the bench, it really helps our group.”

Hill finished 10-16 from the field on the game and scored a game-high 29 points.

The Spurs also got a great performance off the bench for the first time in a while from Matt Bonner. Bonner hit three of four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points. More importantly, though, were the 11 rebounds that Bonner had in the game, six offensive.

“I thought his activity on the offensive board was more impressive than him making a couple 3’s,” Coach Pop said.

Bonner, who had been struggling with his shot for the last several games, finally got off the schnide at the 7:01 mark in the second quarter.

Gary Neal caught a pass on the wing with the opportunity for an open 3, and hesitated for a split second. Neal held the ball just long enough to draw the rotating defender to himself and passed the ball to Bonner who was even more open.

“It was my Shawshank Redemption shot,” Bonner said. “I was cruising down the coast on my way to Mexico.”

When it went through the hoop, my thought wasn’t the movies but instead, that of a guy on a cold streak with the ladies. Bonner was in a slump with those of the opposite sex and Neal was nice enough to pass along the phone number of a desperate girl.

Neither analogy may be that good, so instead we’ll let Coach Pop sort it out.

“It’s just trying to make a good shot a great shot, sometimes that’s an extra pass,” Pop said.

After his Shawshank Redemption quote, Bonner did echo the good-to-great theme Coach Pop mentioned, saying that it’s been one of the Spurs’ themes this season.

“It’s just what Coach Pop has been preaching all year, good to great,” Bonner said. “That’s big, if you have a good shot but someone has a great shot, kick it and take the great shot.”

Continuing the bench theme, an interesting development occurred in the first quarter of this one. After Bonner entered the game off the bench for Antonio McDyess, Tiago Splitter became the second big off the bench, going in for Tim Duncan.

Normally Blair has been the other big to get the bulk of the minutes in the post rotation, but Sunday is indication that this could be changing. For the record, Splitter played fairly well in his minutes in the first half, scoring three points and grabbing three rebounds.

Splitter was a +15 on the afternoon and the Spurs broke the game open in that second quarter. In the second half, Blair saw action before Splitter did, but the game was seemingly out of reach at that point. It’s uncertain who would’ve seen more minutes had the game been closer.

It’s something to keep an eye on as the Spurs roll into the playoffs, the team’s big man rotation. Whenever he’s asked about Splitter, Coach Pop also seems to squeeze the word “tough” in there. As much as I like the things Blair does for the team, the guy described as “tough” is the one I want in there when the playoffs get going.

  • rob

    There are innate weaknesses to both Bonner and Blair’s game. Comparing both is like comparing apples to oranges since both have different strengths. Fuse the two into one and you have a top 5 post player in this league.

    For me…as long as they don’t run the Blair/Bonner combo the Spurs should be alright in the post.

    Blair was best utelized when pairing with Duncan, but the team can’t afford to have Blair as a starter come playoffs against other teams with a larger front court.

    Splitter did his best work as a starter when Duncan was out…but they’re too similar to have on the court at the same time unless it’s strictly for defensive purposes.

    I would keep the Duncan/McDyess start. Depending on who is subbed out first (McDyess or Duncan), bring in Blair for McDyess with Duncan still on the court. Splitter for Duncan with McDyess on the court.

    If the perimeter shots are not falling…Bonner off the bench first as long as he is not paired up with Blair. Again…under no circumstances would I like to see a Blair/Bonner combo. I think it best any other combination should be used if at all possible. Both, however in the… (this is key)… correct rotation… have proven to be very productive for the Spurs.

  • NYC

    @Marc

    I could not disagree with you more. If you measure defensive acumen by attempted steals, blocks, and fouls, then you sorely misunderstand the Spurs organization.

    Popovich will chew you out and bench you for blowing a defensive assignment, missing a rotation, or gambling for a block and fouling the shooter in the act. He will not yank you from the floor if you are always in correct position, make the correct rotation, close out, or hold your arms straight up rather than gamble for the block even as more talented players continue to score against you as long as you give him fundamentally sound defense.

    Athletically gifted big men with exceptional timing and talent are the ones who make highlight reels with blocks and steals. Obviously not everyone can be Dwight Howard. The vast majority who are not exceptional (by definition of the word) should be judged by how smart they play, how hard they play, and how much they get out of their limited ability.

    If Bonner is a “shadow” that goes unnoticed, then it means he is doing something right. He is playing within his limits. He doesn’t gamble for a steal, leaving his teammates to scramble and cover for him. Instead he plays smarter by playing for position. He doesn’t go for the shot block (because he couldn’t elevate even if he wanted to), but neither does he foul the shooter and make a bad situation worse. Again, that is smart basketball and smart defense. He recognizes and makes the correct rotation the majority of the time. He makes his best effort to rebound but does not overcommit, leaving others to scramble back down the court to cover a breakaway, or commit dumb over-the-back fouls that kill a team’s momentum, puts them into the penalty, and give away free points at the line. Going unnoticed is the best thing he can do for his team. It is a compliment.

    You know who is gifted athletically and goes for the flashy block, steal, and foul every time? Ian Mahinmi. He is ten times the better athlete than Bonner and is hands-down the worse defender.

    Matt Bonner is a very limited defender who maximizes his output by consistently trying hard and playing smart, fundamentally sound defense. If the Spurs organization chooses to keep him around and give him lots of court time, it is because they recognize this and value it.

    Ian Mahinmi will probably be out of the NBA within 4 years.

    Dejuan Blair has more potential and more talent than Matt Bonner. He needs to learn Bonner’s BB IQ. Until he improves in this regard, I would not rely on Blair on the big stage.

  • NYC

    Also, Daniel T has the more germane statistics, hands down.

    Are we talking about the Spurs team winning a championship or Dejuan Blair making the all-defensive team? Because I was the under the impression we were talking about the team, and the last time I checked professional basketball is a 5-on-5 team game.

    Daniel’s statistics conclusively show that this Spurs team performs better with Bonner than with Blair. End of discussion.

  • BigJ

    @Jayflm

    Tightness is a good way to phrase it . I agree with you that a team mate with some flair ala Jackson would be helpful. I often find Manu to be of this mold. Lately I’m unsure if he’s lost a few steps and thus some of his own flair. Ofcourse Manu in the playoff’s is usually a beast of a different color.

    @Bry

    This isn’t the veteran laden team it used to be. I would argue, aside from Parker, this team is more reliant on a mix of veterans with declining skills and a youth movement which is largely unproven in the post season. Add in Jayflm’s points and I still think there’s something amiss here.

  • Marc

    NYC,
    i think you misunderstood my “shadow” describing or it’s my mistake to translate the meaning from my mother language. By shadow i mean his existence is the same as his absence, cannot do anything, you may step on him and do whatever you want while he’s defending you. If his 3s are not falling, what’s the good thing he’s doing for the team? and in playoffs his 3s will not fall (i hope i’m wrong but history backs me up).
    I agree with you he doesn’t gamble, but he never blew a defensive assignment? he never missed a rotation? come on how many times he seems lost on the floor, doesn’t know even where to stand.
    If what you’re saying about Pop is true, Bonner shouldn’t be in practice; but we’ll never understand Pop thinking, we’ll never understand the extended minutes for Bonner and the little tiny minutes for Splitter.
    As for BB IQ in defense, man i don’t know, but for me it’s always better to send a player to free throw line than give him an easy basket (and with Bonner it’s an extremely easy basket). Blair is just 21 and has so many things to learn, no one is relying on him to win the finals but when it comes to big stages i prefer to rely on him than Bonner.
    Cheers.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Bry

    @BigJ The entire starting 5 and Bonner are vets, while Neal and Splitter are old for rookies. Maybe tight is a better way to describe it, like you said. They know selfishness is frowned upon, and have trouble committing to it (this is especially true of wing players).
    @NYC I agree completely regarding a good defensive mentality. Bonner’s flaws are physical.
    @Marc I disagree about sending a guy to the line rather than giving up a basket. Players in a slump will often miss that basket, and putting them on the line can be the perfect slump-breaker. It puts the opponent in the bonus earlier and longer, and gets the official acclimated to you fouling in those situations. It can also put the player in foul trouble, which is a big problem if he’s a key guy. Those are my criticisms for fouling in the paint. Fouling out away from the basket, or setting a moving screen, or going over the back for a rebound you have little chance to get is inexcusible IMO.

  • TD = Best EVER

    @ Andrew A. McNeill

    “But the Spurs usually have Bonner on the floor with either Splitter, Tim Duncan or Antonio McDyess, all players who are better one-on-one defenders, enabling Bonner to slide over and defend the weaker big. This puts Bonner in a help defender position and gives the Spurs a stronger defensive lineup.”

    But in the playoffs when basically EVERY team has 2-3 good bigs instead of just one or so in the regular season who does Bonner guard……. In the West every team has 2 good post players at least…… So there is no weaker Big for him to play against……

    Daniel T
    April 4th, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I agree with you as long as we are talking about Bonner playing against other bench players and not starters like Blair has most season…….Also I’m sure if you look at those numbers against teams over .500 they would also be different…… i think Bonner pads his stats so to speak vs the very bad teams……..

    @ NYC

    “He doesn’t gamble for a steal, leaving his teammates to scramble and cover for him.”

    Manu/TP gamble for steals all the time…. leaving others to cover for them and POP has never said a word……. SO obviously, he doesn’t care about gambling as long as you can come up with a few steals….. Or he only cares that the Post players play solid D and doesn’t care what guards do at all…..

    Also

    “He makes his best effort to rebound but does not overcommit, leaving others to scramble back down the court to cover a breakaway, or commit dumb over-the-back fouls that kill a team’s momentum, puts them into the penalty, and give away free points at the line.”

    part of being a GREAT REBOUNDER is reboundign balls that are out of position…….. If he only got balls that were close to him, he would rebound more like Bonner…… but as it is he is one of the top rebound/min guys in the NBA because he tries to get all rebounds…… not just the one’s that are EASY to get……. So yes he will commit a few fouls per game because of this……but he will also get you a few more possessions each game because of it……Even Kevin Love gets some of these over the back fouls…… TD used to as well….. Blair will learn how to minimize them, but he will always pick up a few……

  • NYC

    @Marc

    I agree: Bonner gets abused by the elite big men, such as Dirk, Z-Bo, Gasol y Gasol, Aldridge… it’s tough to watch. But that’s saying a Ferrari is going to outrace a minivan. Until you can get a faster car, you expect to lose that race.

    My problem is I’m not sure Blair can do any better against the elite. Dirk shoots right over him. Z-Bo and Gasol (M) outmuscle him. Gasol (P) has too much finesse, and Aldridge too much speed. Blair or Bonner, pick your poison: they’re both getting abused. That is why I believe Splitter should be the 3rd big.

    It’s not that Bonner never misses a rotation or is caught out of position, but most of the time he is playing correctly. More often than Blair; let’s just leave it at that. Blair is still young and has room to improve, but at this point I would put Bonner in as the 4th big. I agree with you that if Bonner’s shots aren’t falling and he is getting abused on defense, give someone else a shot. It would have been nice to have a 6th option, but that simply didn’t happen this season.

    @TD=BE

    Manu and TP are exceptional players so they are judged by a different set of rules than Bonner. The difference is that Manu and TP are, in fact, elite players. They are extremely quick and gambling for the steal is rewarded often enough that Pop will give them more slack. Also, they are out on the perimeter, as you noted, so a failed gamble for them is less risky than for Bonner or Blair.

    For a player of Bonner’s limited prowess, I am happy if he plays fundamental defense, and clearly Pop is too or he wouldn’t give Bonner so many minutes. Blair has good hands and is talented at stealing. My knock on him is that he still needs to develop the IQ to know when to gamble for the steal and when to reign it in and just play positional defense. Obviously we all hope this will improve with time. I agree he is an exceptional rebounder and wins over Bonner in that regard.

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