The San Antonio Spurs won in a convincing fashion in Game 5 in a 117-89 decision against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team was expected to make some changes or tweaks of some sorts and that was Matt Bonner replacing starting center Tiago Splitter. That was one of the reasons the Spurs won along with the team’s plan for Reggie Jackson.
(Spoiler alert. I’m not going to use statistics here).
On the Spurscast before the game, I mentioned that the Spurs needed to go small to win or else they would lose if they didn’t. Bonner in the lineup didn’t make the lineup small by any means nor did it help that Bonner went scoreless. Bonner’s lack of contribution wasn’t a good sight, but his presence was.
To understand the move and why it worked, you have to look farther than stats. Do you remember the “I love you, but not in love with you” phrase used back in the day? That’s sort of what Bonner did this game. It wasn’t Bonner that helped the Spurs, but the idea of Matt Bonner on the floor. It was the same as small ball but without the speed or quickness (or high release if you see how Bonner shoots).
When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich inserted Bonner as the starting power forward or center, he likely wasn’t expecting him to shoot a high percentage or dominate the rebounding for the team. What he was expecting was the influence of Bonner to have an impact on the Thunder’s defense in that now they can’t collapse in the paint with an extra shooter waiting to grab a pass to shoot an open three-pointer from beyond the arc. That now leaves Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins thinking twice about collapsing on the Spurs’ pick and roll maestros in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The less congested paint area gave some breathing room for Tim Duncan to have putbacks also whether it was against a slower Perkins or an athletic Ibaka who’s looking at the speedier Parker instead of the taller Duncan.
This move also made those guys move around on defense and that’s something you don’t get with Splitter because of his inability to shoot. This is something that’s forgotten: sometimes the best defense is better offense. When Ibaka has to work on defense, he might not have legs to go perfect from the field any time soon. Boris Diaw was still the first big man off the bench for the Spurs, but the damage was done as the Thunder had to think on defense and not go by instinct as they did in Games 3 and 4 by being aggressive on the first move that came to mind. The Oklahoma City big men were mentally frustrated and physically fatigued by chasing guards off the pick and rolls and then having to recover.
Another Thunder player that showed signs of fatigue early was Reggie Jackson. There was concern about his injured ankle, but the Spurs put that pressure on him. It’s said the Spurs play a “chess game” against their opponents with Popovich’s mind games and the young Thunder guard may have been a victim of that.
When the Spurs decided to put Tony Parker on Jackson while Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard guarded the Big 2 of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder made the adjustment of having Parker move around on defense while trying to carry the offensive load on the other end. The adjustment the Spurs made was simple: we’re daring you to tire Parker out. That was evident in the first few possessions of the opening quarter when Jackson was baited into pick and rolls against Parker and Bonner. He was successful, but that ruined any chemistry the Thunder were trying to establish because it took the ball out of the hands of their best shooters. Jackson was fatigued and the rest of the team was confused and cold on offense. With a short rotation in the guard position for the Thunder, that forced the third offensive option on the team to wear down on both ends (with an injury) and made the Big 2 become the saviours of the team by trying to bring them back. The Spurs definitely are the deeper team and with the next game on Saturday, this fatigue may carry over and it might not be enough for a loud crowd to give him an extra gear.
The reasons the Spurs won were simple in that they made the Thunder think on defense. Matt Bonner wasn’t the most attractive option to start, but he certainly made them switch the defense. Maybe Pop changes the lineup again for Game 6, but it’s no secret the thought of guarding a shooting big man disrupted any plans they had going into the game. Reggie Jackson also being forced to carry the team early on played a huge part in Tony Parker’s contributions and it forced the ball out of the hands of the Thunder’s two best players. This isn’t a strategy that might change for the Thunder and Spurs any time soon. The Thunder want Parker to tire out by playing defense, but the Spurs know this might be their best option to stop Durant and Westbrook by not giving them the ball. The advantage of Bonner starting also gives a clearer lane for the rest of the players, so Parker might not have to be depended upon every play on offense either. They might not be the prettiest or most notable adjustments, but Pop definitely decided to outsmart the more athletic team in a way that made his Spurs look younger.