The Spurs fun brigade comes to the rescue
AT&T CENTER—Never an easy night to be had for the San Antonio Spurs against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Spurs entered the fourth quarter with the game tied at 76 and struggling to consistently knock down shots.
With “nasty” confined to the bench with injuries, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich opted to interject a little “fun” into the proceedings.
Enter a lineup of Nando De Colo, Gary Neal, James Anderson, Matt Bonner, and Tiago Splitter; exit the Milwaukee Bucks in a 110-99 Spurs win.
This piecemealed lineup blitzed the Bucks with a 17-3 run to start the fourth (boasting an offensive efficiency of 137.1 for the night), earning Tim Duncan a fourth quarter off and the unit praise from Popovich after the game.
“That was our best group all night,” Popovich said. “They were really active defensively, they all rebounded. Matty Bonner was awesome on the boards and on the other end the ball moved, nobody held it. So that group really did a good job at both ends and got the win for us.”
The Spurs depth is often praised even as its individual components are ignored or mocked on a national level, with Splitter and Bonner being particularly favorite targets of TrueHoop-friend-turned-CBS-analyst Matt Moore on Twitter. NBA commissioner David Stern even fined the Spurs for subjecting this group to a national audience.
What the Spurs second unit, minus Manu Ginobili, lacks in star quality it makes up for in sheer entertainment value. They space the floor, moving both bodies and ball around with extreme precision. They are, in a word, fun.
“It’s a great unit. They wait and move the ball very well,” Ginobili said after the game. “They start to play faster than us. Against a good five-on-five defense you get them off balance. With Tiago rolling, Nando finding people, and Gary finishing, it was fun to watch.”
De Colo and Splitter played key roles in the resting Spurs near upset of the Miami Heat and ignited the team again in the fourth quarter.
If Bucks guard Monta Ellis is that guy no one wants to play with in your weekly pickup games, yet somehow always winds up on a team, De Colo is his polar opposite.
His passing helped key the Spurs fourth quarter run, on one play finding Splitter in stride with a perfectly placed behind-the-back pass, who found a cutting James Anderson, who located Matt Bonner in the corner for an open jumper.
It was the sort of play that will go unnoticed in the box score but not by teammates.
“The stats were not fair to [De Colo] today,” Ginobili said. “Seven [points] and two [assists] doesn’t say much, but he was key.”
De Colo’s pick and roll dance partner had a box score with a little more to say. Tiago Splitter scored 15 points on nine shots, notching 10 in the fourth quarter for his third double digit fourth quarter of the season (via Dan McCarney of the Express-News).
Splitter’s game isn’t always easy to appreciate. He neither destroys opponents from the post nor rains jumpers from the perimeter. The bulk of his skill set is found in his understanding of spacing and timing instead of individual offensive skills. They type of game that works in a team setting but doesn’t translate well in an empty gym or in video game form.
Parker called Splitter fun to play with, the Brazilian big man making things easy for his guards by finding or creating a passing lane to make himself available.
“He’s a great pick-and-roll player. He rolls to the basket, he knows how to space things,” Popovich said. “Players enjoy playing with him.”
And ultimately that’s the highest praise that can be heaped upon this fun brigade—a group made up of a rookie combo guard lacking quality athleticism or consistent shot, a no-conscience chucker that can put up shots in a hurry, but never dominates the ball, a floor spacing big man suddenly working his way on the glass, and a foreign big man with hard-to-translate skills speaking in an even harder-to-translate accent.
To paraphrase Popovich, players enjoy playing with them. For a night against Milwaukee, fans enjoyed watching them too.