Starting Matt Bonner
Coach Pop shocked the world by announcing that Matt Bonner would start before the game. It would be Bonner's first start of the season, and the first time that he played more than a handful of serious minutes since early March. Pop is known for having confidence in his players, but Bonner's addition was still puzzling. Shouldn't the Spurs try to protect the paint and dominate the boards?
Pounding the Rock's Michael Erler offers a better explanation:
Bonner didn't do a thing offensively ... but what he did do is bait another victim into his offense-breaking trap. We see this time and again whenever Bonner is subbed into a game against the other team's starters. Whomever he's guarding starts openly salivating at the sight of him, a shark smelling blood, and the guy can't call for the ball soon enough. Ibaka's offensive game is canning open jumpers or throwing down dunks but he tried three uncharacteristic dribble drives against Bonner and missed all three, with the last one getting snuffed emphatically by Duncan coming over from the weak side. I'll take Ibaka dribble drives all day if it means that Durant or Westbrook aren't shooting it. Red Mamba claimed another victim.
As it turns out, Bonner's lack of presence in the paint and on the boards didn't hurt the Spurs as much as Ibaka's destroyed confidence killed the Thunder's offense. Furthermore, Bonner could have been much more effective than he was last night. He missed all three of his shot attempts (likely because it's been so long since he's seen real minutes), but two of them could have easily been made threes. The other attempt was well guarded, but if Bonner had the presence to pump-fake and pass or shoot, he could have made lemons out of lemonade. All in all, Popovich's decision was downright brilliant strategically. Furthermore, Bonner's offense could be crucial in a Game 6 or potential Game 7.
But Popovich didn't simply commit to starting Bonner in Game 5. He committed to playing a stretch four during every important minute of this game, which meant Diaw got a hefty serving of minutes. It also meant that Diaw was always playing alongside Duncan or Splitter. The whole strategy left Diaw in a very advantageous offensive position, since he started off the game against the Thunder's backup front line. Furthermore, Diaw mostly played directly against Ibaka, successfully exploiting Ibaka's tendency to play help defense.
The lineup change also helped the man Diaw replaced. Tiago Splitter ended up only playing bench minutes, but he was matched up against the more inexperienced Steven Adams or a wing. He wasn't able to take full advantage, but he got to the line on three separate occasions during the important parts of this game, which is more than you can say about his contributions in Game 4.
Lastly, the lineup change was a huge advantage for the Spurs because Matt Bonner is a three point shooter that the Thunder respect. I know that his presence never led directly to Spur points, but had Diaw started, he would have likely been ignored on the perimeter. Pop could have gone small with Bellinelli or Ginobili, but neither could have stopped Ibaka from driving, Bellinelli is having a terrible series, and Ginobili is the heart and soul of the bench. Really, Bonner was the best potential option, and the waves it sent across the rest of the game were HUGE.
Attacking the basket
As first mentioned by Fred Silva of Pounding the Rock, the Spurs were extremely aggressive about driving to the basket tonight. They had a remarkable 30 free throws (24 that mattered), which is well over their season average of 20 or their playoff average of 22.6. As a whole, the team was particularly fearless about attacking Ibaka. An early floater by Ginobili was probably the most impressive play, but Duncan was the most effective at surprising Ibaka while he wasn't prepared.
Mostly though, Boris Diaw's aggressiveness opened up things for other players. As highlighted in Coach Nick's latest video, he was great at putting the ball on the floor and getting into the paint. While there, he was able to grab quick points and fouls from the Thunder's slow-to-recover defense. He was also able to pass out to the perimeter for a few sweet assists. As if that weren't enough, Ibaka's commitment to stopping the ball in the paint really helped Diaw out on a few critical offensive boards. Diaw's jumper won't always go down, but he is quicker than Ibaka, and the Thunder are going to have to counter Diaw in some way. Going small is a strong possibility, since the Thunder never really tried anything non-traditional and athletic until they were already heavily down.
Another guy who had no problem getting to the rim was Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder simply did a bad job of containing him as he drove from the perimeter, and often had no one to meet him at the rim. For his part, Kawhi did a great job of not trying too hard to create shots, as he's previously done in this series. Leonard was also able to nail a couple of open threes, but both of them were just great opportunities (rather than a specific defensive failure on the Thunder's parts).
Danny Green also benefitted from the Spurs basket attacking. The Thunder did a good job of ordering Green's man to chase him off of the three point line most of the time, but he was able to get a few good attempts off when the Thunder had to respect some sort of action the Spurs were doing on the other side of the floor. Considering how terrible Green was doing when the Spurs weren't attacking the paint in Game 3 and 4, the results speak for themselves.
The strategy's last major effect had to be getting Kendrick Perkins into foul trouble. Say what you will about Perk, but he's done a semi-effective job of handling Tim Duncan in this series. Duncan had his moments last night and in Game 1, but Perk has definitely had a negative effect on his production. Furthermore, the starting lineup (with Perk at center) would prove to be the only consistently decent lineup in Game 5, so Perk's early departure in the third hurt the Thunder all that more. I'm not sure there's much Perk could have done to prevent it, since he clearly stepped up his help defense in Game 4 and was trying to do so again in Game 5. And I'd like to see him with the same aggressiveness in Game 6, since a foul is better than an open layup. Still, it'd be nice if Perk could come out when Brooks wants him to, rather than when his fouls force him to.
This is the first of a two part series. Tomorrow morning, I'll reveal the two moves Brooks made to lose Game 5 in my Game 6 preview.