LOS ANGELES — Two examples of what makes the Spurs — unselfish, deep, humble, precise, unwavering — the Spurs: Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair.
Both players have been shoved out of the rotation at different times. Tiago Splitter reduced Blair to mostly spot duty this season. Boris Diaw severely cut into Bonner’s minutes. Yet, whenever the two reserves are needed most, there they are ready to serve. And produce. Both are now needed even more now with Diaw recovering from back surgery and Splitter sidelined for at least Sunday’s Game 4 against the Lakers (7 p.m. ET, TNT) with a sprained left ankle.
Bonner, the lone Spur outside the Big Three on the last title team in 2007, has been a nuisance to Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, doing whatever’s necessary to corral him, including implementation of the “Bonner Bear Hug,” a maneuver surely passed along by former Spurs defensive genius Bruce Bowen. The move has been particularly effective against Howard, who gets frustrated that he can’t get a shot up and must march to the free throw line where he’s 24-for-40 in the series.
In 80 minutes of action in the first three games in which the Spurs have taken a 3-0 lead, Bonner has 26 points, 12 rebounds, three steals, three blocks and 10 fouls. His plus-minus is a whopping plus-56, including plus-29 in Game 2.
He was so effective that Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni actually said that the Lakers’ goal was to get Bonner out of the game. Imagine that?
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” Bonner said prior to Game 3.
Bonner, also known as the “Red Rocket” for obvious reasons, averaged just 13.4 mpg in the regular season and played in just 68 games. But with Diaw out, Bonner’s minutes have been ramped up to 26.7. He’s 9-for-14 from the floor and 5-for-7 beyond the arc. At one point in Game 3’s 120-89 beatdown of the Lakers, Bonner received a pass at the top of the arc and the L.A. crowd actually let out a collective groan, anticipating the inevitable swish.
“Matty’s a character guy, he’s a team person, he’ll do whatever’s asked of him,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “If he starts, if he doesn’t play, his work ethic will stay the same. He’s just a high-character individual who will give everything he has no matter the situation. So we’re fortunate to have him.”
Similarly on the outs was Blair, who averaged 14.0 mpg in 61 games. He didn’t score in 12 total minutes in Games 1 and 2, then came through with 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting to go with seven rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes in Game 3. Howard even brought up Blair’s shooting in his postgame comments, somewhat suggesting that Blair’s Tony Parker-like teardrop shot was a bit lucky.
Blair refuted such a notion on Saturday.
“I practice that shot before every game,” Blair said. “I call it the T.P. Tear Drop.”
Blair is the most logical candidate to get the Game 4 start in place of Splitter. He’s looking forward to the increased minutes because, obviously, every player wants to play in big games. But also the 6-foot-7, 270-pound center out of Pittsburgh admitted that he sees the opportunity to open the eyes of teams across the league. A free agent this summer, Blair said he loves San Antonio, but would welcome a chance to play more somewhere else.
“It’s just about knowing where you’re at and what your situation is,” Blair said. “In front of me is Tim Duncan and I would never mind in my life sitting behind Tim Duncan, or anyone else on the team. We’ve got great players and everybody accepts their role perfect. So all of that [about] I’m not getting minutes and stuff like that, that really doesn’t bother me. My duty is to do all the dirty work and be the junkyard of this team, so I’m going to do that. I have no problem with that. If I get in a better situation I think a lot of people will see more of my game.”
Blair has long been a name on the trade block, but through four seasons in which Blair has averaged as many as 21.4 mpg and started 62 and 65 games in consecutive seasons, the Spurs never pulled the trigger.
Right now they’re happy they didn’t.
“We haven’t played him as much as he’s wanted to play,” Popovich said. “To his credit, DeJuan has been a true pro.”