SAN ANTONIO — It would be absurd to say the balance of power in the Western Conference Finals just shifted based on the mere presence of a seldom-used, red-headed shooting specialist. Beyond absurd.
Matt Bonner has started 15 games over the last five seasons. He does not run, jump or score with any particular distinction. His nickname, Red Rocket, is purely ironic, a testament more to his hair than his flair.
The one thing Bonner does best is shoot three-pointers. The next thing he does best is make opponents worry about his three-pointers. And that, more or less, is how the Spurs seized a 3-2 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, in a Western Conference Finals that grows more absurd by the day.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich inserted Bonner into the starting lineup for Game 5, primarily to draw Serge Ibaka, the Thunder's rangy shot-blocker, out of the paint. Bonner never hit a shot. He played just 17 minutes. That was, seemingly, all it took to throw the Thunder entirely off-kilter, paving the way for a 117-89 Spurs victory that moved San Antonio to within one win of a return to the Finals.
The box score would suggest it's absurd to make much of the lineup change. Ibaka suggested otherwise.
"They make us kind of do some different things, kind of lose a little bit of our control in the paint," Ibaka said late Thursday. "And especially myself, I did not do a better job to protect my teammates in the paint. So I want to take that blame. Because I'm sure they were really hoping I would be there for them."
Bonner replaced Tiago Splitter, giving the Spurs four shooters around Tim Duncan to open the game. With Kendrick Perkins shadowing Duncan, it was up to Ibaka to keep Bonner within arm's length. When Bonner checked out, Boris Diaw—another skilled long-range shooter—came in, and Ibaka had to chase him, too.
It left the paint wide-open, and the Spurs made great use of that space, converting 19 of 27 shots (70.4 percent) within eight feet of the basket, per NBA.com. Those 19 field goals translated to 38 points, more than accounting for the 28-point margin of victory.
Ibaka is a tall and lanky man, standing 6'10" with a 7'4" wingspan. He finished second in the league in blocks per game this season after leading the league in the category in both 2012-13 and 2011-12. His reach and athleticism force opponents to think twice about even approaching the basket.
Yet even with all of that enviable height, length and quickness, Ibaka must obey the laws of physics. He cannot simultaneously guard the rim and the three-point line.
"That's what I'm saying," Ibaka said, concluding, "We need to choose what we're going to give them, what we're not going to give them. … So now we need to choose—are we going to give them [the] paint? Or are we going to [give them the perimeter]?"
Ibaka said he was not even aware of the Spurs' lineup change until five minutes before tipoff, when teammate Kevin Durant walked up and said, "You're [going to] guard Bonner."
"So I was kind of surprised," Ibaka said.
One small wrinkle turned into one large problem for the Thunder. Once Ibaka drifted from his comfort zone, the Thunder's entire defensive posture seemed to wilt. And when that went, everything else seemed to go, too.
All of the Thunder's advantages in Games 3 and 4—their speed, their athleticism, their youth, their aggression—dissipated, and suddenly the court belonged to the oldest stars on the court, with Duncan (22 points, 12 rebounds) and Manu Ginobili (19 points, four rebounds, six assists) thrusting the Spurs back in control of the series.
This series had already drifted into absurdity long before Bonner waltzed into the starting lineup. The Spurs took the first two games of the series by a combined 52 points (an NBA record), only to lose the next two games by a combined 22 points.
There has been nothing predictable, or particularly logical, about the series' wild swings in momentum, although there is a common thread: Ibaka. He missed the first two games while recovering from a calf injury. His surprise return fueled the Thunder's series-saving victory in Game 3, and it helped propel them again in Game 4. The series shifted back to the Spurs when they moved to neutralize him.
Ibaka finished Game 5 with just six points, two rebounds and two blocks.
"Popovich is one of the best coaches in the NBA, so he knows what he's doing," Ibaka said. "I know he's [going to] make [adjustments]. … Now, it's our turn."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck
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