Stopping the San Antonio Spurs offense, one of the league’s three best over the last three seasons combined, is always going to be a chore. Smart defenses can construct wonderful theoretical game plans centered on limiting the Spurs to midrange jumpers off Tony Parker pick-and-rolls by cutting off Parker around the foul line and staying home on San Antonio’s unfair army of deadly shooters. And some of those smart defenses are good enough to actually execute that kind of game plan over long stretches, or even entire games.
But the Spurs have top midrange shooters at key positions, and they are so good that over time they're going to find cracks in even the most well-meaning team defenses. Parker and Manu Ginobili, even this aging and limited version, are brilliant ball handlers who can slice through the gut of a defense with wily crossover dribbles, tiny bits of misdirection, and pinpoint passing. The constant whirring of the Spurs system often gives them a head start by putting their defenders through all sorts of off-ball movement before Parker or Ginobili finally catch the ball in position to attack — and with their defenders off-balance and/or fatigued. And no group of NBA big men is better versed in the art of setting screens in tricky little ways that disguise which direction the Spurs’ ball handlers might jet around those picks.
Matt Bonner is an unlikely candidate for a fan-driven NBA All-Star campaign. The San Antonio Spurs center is averaging just 3.8 points and two rebounds per game coming off the bench this season. But his shooting percentage from downtown — 48.4 — is surprisingly robust; even if he is playing just 11 minutes every night, Bonner is raining 3s as accurately as anybody in the NBA.
Because of his 3-point game, Bonner has garnered a small but significant following that is now soliciting the league to allow the 6-foot-10 shooter to participate in this year’s 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend. There’s an online petition at Change.org that currently has more than 250 signatures, and a Twitter hashtag — #letbonnershoot — that’s been catching on among indie-rock bands, including Arcade Fire. "There's so much injustice in the world that we can't do anything about, but this is something we can change. #LetBonnerShoot," reads a recent tweet that was RTed 300 times. (The campaign is reminiscent of the Let Shannon Dunk push in 2010. That one ended with an underwhelming Shannon Brown appearance in the slam dunk contest.)
Here’s a sobering thought: The Spurs are 8-2, with the fifth-best point differential in the league, and they are basically screwing around.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. Gregg Popovich rarely screws around, even though it’s delightful when he does. But the Spurs are clearly experimenting, with an eye on reinventing themselves on both ends of the floor by the time the playoffs come around. It seems strange to redesign a team that went 31-2 in the 33 games before the Thunder rallied for four straight wins in the conference finals, but the redesign is happening, and it’s Popovich’s way of recognizing that the team got as far as it could with its pick-and-roll-all-the-time offense and just-above-average defense. The Spurs ran into a more athletic team that did enough defensively to at least limit San Antonio’s pick-and-roll devastation, and they found they didn’t have enough on either end to compensate. The Thunder are still there, the Lakers are a powerhouse-in-waiting, and the Heat should be monstrous in the spring.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Roy Hibbert scored 19 points and grabbed 18 boards as the Pacers took a 2-1 lead on the Heat with a 94-75 win. During the third quarter, Dwyane Wade had a heated exchange with head coach Erik Spoelstra that only ended after Spoelstra grudgingly conceded that yes, maybe E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Greydoes have some literary value.