One of the ongoing debates among some of our reader’s here at Project Spurs and maybe in the San Antonio Spurs-Oklahoma City Thunder conversations around the region, is whether or not Spurs backup center DeJuan Blair should get more playing time against the Thunder?
It’s an interesting debate, as Blair has shown some success in the past this season against the Thunder. So to have some fun, I’m going to make this a case of Blair vs. Diaw, or Bonner, or Splitter. Let’s begin with Blair’s argument.
Blair’s lawyer: “My client deserves to get more than 8.2 minutes per game against the Thunder. He had a 22-point and 11-rebound game the last time the Spurs defeated the Thunder in Oklahoma City. He’s shooting 15-of-23 against the Thunder this season (65%), averaging 11-points, and grabbing six rebounds per game against them. He deserves to get a chance in this series.”
Diaw-Splitter-Bonner’s lawyer: “With all do respect to your client, you forgot a few minor details. First, you failed to mention that in the other two games against the Thunder this year, your client only scored five and seven points in those outings. You also failed to mention that before your client scored 22-points against the Thunder, he scored just four points the game before. He also followed his “big” 22-point game with a mere six-point game the following night in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Your client started the first Spurs-Lakers game of this season, and never saw anymore-major playing time after because Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol absolutely exposed his lack of height and declining rebounding ability. Diaw, Splitter, and even Bonner were able to hold their own against the Lakers and with Blair sitting the on the bench in the next two meetings, the Spurs routed the Lakers in the next two games.”
-Judge interferes- “Enough! Didn’t you all forget you’re all on the same team?”
OK, that was a little dramatic. It’s true, there’s a debate there for Blair, but it’s going to be really tough for one to present a strong enough argument that Blair should be getting more minutes against the Thunder right now. Of the Spurs’ four big men options not named Tim Duncan, Blair is the one who has lost his position in the rotation. He’s been reduced to James Anderson’s companion on the bench and only goes in when one of the other big guys gets in early foul trouble, or it’s a blow out.
The Spurs’ front line without Blair playing major minutes is so dynamic right now. Duncan is Duncan so you already know what he can do. Diaw has become the starting center for good reason, he brings even more diversity to the starting unit and makes them that much tougher to stop. Diaw’s production on the court is showing, he went from scoring 5.5 points, grabbing 4.8 rebounds, and shooting 33% from three-point range against the Utah Jazz to averaging 7.5 points, grabbing 6.3 rebounds, and shooting 57% from three-point range against the Los Angeles Clippers. Diaw brings so much versatility on both sides of the floor. He has the “size” and speed to defend different sized post players, he’s an excellent passer, can attack the rim, can shoot from three, can hit the mid range jumper, and even his coach and Duncan have raved about his high level of “basketball I.Q.” in the locker room after games. One more attribute Diaw is bringing against the Thunder is the element of surprise. This season, the Thunder have yet to face Diaw because he wasn’t apart of the Spurs in the first three meetings, and he never faced the Thunder when he was a member of the Charlotte Bobcats. The Thunder’s big men of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison don’t have any recent/prior game time experience against him like they’ll have against the Spurs’ other frontcourt players.
As for Splitter and Bonner, Blair’s going to have a tough time cracking into their minutes as well because they both have more qualities on both sides of the floor that outmatch Blair. Splitter is a main element in the Spurs’ second unit pick-and-roll game, and he gets to the free throw line at a high rate. Bonner will be important against the Thunder because of his ability to take Oklahoma’s shot blockers away from the rim as he floats around the perimeter. All Blair can do is pick-and-roll, he doesn’t have much else in his offensive tool box that he can throw out there. He hasn’t developed a perimeter shot, and teams grab offensive rebounds against too pretty successfully.
If you’re still not convinced, let’s break down a typical Spurs playoff game to see where Blair can get any serious minutes. Diaw starts, then either Splitter or Bonner come in for his and Duncan’s relief. In the second quarter, Duncan will pay alongside Bonner and Diaw for the majority of the quarter. In the third quarter, Duncan and Diaw once again get more minutes, and then Splitter and Bonner come into relieve them. In the closing quarter, the Spurs will finish with Duncan and Bonner if they’re trying to catch-up to their opponent, or they’ll close with Duncan and Splitter if they’re trying to hold their lead and put the opposing team away. Each Spurs big man has a role in the rotation and knows where they belong when coach Popovich calls upon them. There’s a reason this lineup has won eight-straight playoff games and 18-games in a row dating back to the regular season, coach Popovich has found rotations that work well.
The only way in my opinion that Blair gets any serious minutes in this series is if a) a big man gets into foul trouble early in a game, or b) the Thunder’s speed in the open court is just too much for the Spurs’ bigs, so coach Popovich might look to Blair as more of a backup adjustment move. But even then, if the game is going too fast, I expect Popovich to put Leonard or Jackson at the power forward spot and just one center to match the Thunder.
The Thunder don’t have very skilled offensive post players. Perkins gets some put-backs here and there, as does Collison, and Ibaka gets alley-oops and some put backs as well. The closing big man lineup for the Thunder is usually Perkins and Collison, the Spurs won’t need Blair to match those two post players.
As the series begins on Sunday, I don’t expect Blair to be a major factor in game one, nor in the series unless the Thunder find some unknown weakness in the Spurs’ frontcourt. The way I see it, if the Spurs’ front court rotation isn’t broken, then don’t mess with it. Just leave it alone. It’s proved itself with 18-straight wins and an undefeated road record since Diaw and Patty Mills joined the team.