The San Antonio Spurs head into this 2010 NBA playoffs with questions. Are they too old? Will Richard Jefferson pay off in the playoffs after a sub-par regular season? Is the lack of big men in the paint going to haunt them?
All these questions, and probably more, surround the team as they enter the playoffs. However, if there is one question Spurs fans can answer right away with an emphatic "yes," it's whether or not this year's team comes into the playoffs with a strong bench.
And it is the bench that will be the x-factor for the Spurs heading into the playoffs.
With the starters usually made up of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Antonio McDyess, Richard Jefferson, and Keith Bogans, the Spurs bench can arguably be a starting unit for any squad.
DeJuan Blair, Malik Hairston, Manu Ginobili, Ian Mahinmi, Roger Mason, George Hill, Garrett Temple, and Matt Bonner make for a potent second-unit that has proven itself to be the savior for the Spurs during the regular-season and a positive in an otherwise mediocre one. Some might even argue, this is the deepest bench the Spurs have ever had.
This bench has been the highest scoring bench in the NBA this season at 39.2 points per game. Granted it was against the Minnesota Timberwolves but the Spurs' reserves poured in a whopping 79 points in a 133-111 win on April 12th.
Furthermore, it was not uncommon this season to see the bench out-performing the Spurs' starters and outshining the opposing team's bench. Ask the Western Conference number one seed Los Angeles Lakers.
If one digs deeper into the stats, it reveals much more than just offensive production. The Spurs bench against the other 27 NBA team benches show they average:
- 17.2 rebounds
- 8.7 assists
- 3.0 steals
- 1.9 blocks
- 12.7 defensive rebounds
- 4.6 offensive rebounds
- shoot 45% from the field
- shoot 36% from the three-point line
- shoot 74% from the free-throw line
Insanity! All this makes them the number one bench in the NBA.
Naysayers will point to former Sixth-Man of the Year winner Ginobili coming off the bench as the main reason for these staggering numbers. While that point might have some kernel of truth, overall the reserves are a quality mix of youth and experience.
Blair, Hill, Hairston, Mahinmi and late-comer Temple make up the young Spurs coming off the bench.
In Blair, the Spurs have an absolute brute in the paint. Though small in stature, his wingspan, toughness, strength, knack for grabbing massive rebounds, and ability to finish around the rim more than makes up for the lack of height and ACLs. Might want to ask the Dallas Mavericks in the final regular-season game what Blair is capable of doing. In case you forget Mavericks, Blair pumped in 27 points and 23 rebounds.
Hill, though just in his second season, looks more like he is in his fifth NBA season. What a turnaround for this young Spur. He started his NBA career having a miserable performance in the 2008 Las Vegas summer league to now being Spurs' coach Popovich favorite player.
Hill's production for the Spurs from last year to this year has been astounding. He went from averaging 5.7 points last season to 12.4 this season. Shooting from 40% to 47%. Averaging 1.8 assists to 2.9 assists and shooting 32% to 40% from the three-point line this season.
But more importantly, he displayed poise and maturity when he stepped in admirably for starting point-guard Tony Parker, when Parker suffered a hand injury late in the regular season. He steadied the ship and ran the team like a veteran of 12 years in the NBA.
Hairston, Mahinmi and Temple round out the youngsters. They provide athleticism, energy and the "unknown" for any opposing team. Hairston can give the defense a boost, Mahinmi can contribute on both ends of the floor (if he doesn't foul out in an instant) while Temple has shown he can step in at a moments notice to run the point for the Spurs and make a significant contribution.
The experience off the bench comes from Ginobili, Bonner, Mason.
To say Ginobili has been on a tear of late would be an understatement. Since the All-Star break he has been averaging 22 points a game, shouldering the load for the team, proving his worth to the franchise and has been more vocal on the court with teammates. He has been the Spurs' MVP for the second-half of the regular season and now with a new contract extension making him a Spur for another three years, Ginobili is ready to win.
Bonner and Mason will provide the team with outside shooting but must prove they can contribute when it matters. During the 2008-2009 NBA season, both showed their value to the team during the regular season. Bonner against the Boston Celtics in Boston and Mason showed how clutch he can be against the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns. But all this didn't matter as they disappeared in the 2009 NBA Playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks.
Fast forward to this season and Bonner has added a running-hook shot to his repitoire and Mason is still deadly from the three-point arch.
Nevertheless, they both are poised to make opposing team defenses pay if they leave them wide open for a shot.
As you can see, this commanding mix of youth and experience is the x-factor for the Spurs in this playoff run. It doesn't matter which team the Spurs face in the first-round. With a bench like this, it should make the opposing coaching staff rethink their approach to the series.
But in the end, if the team wants to advance beyond the first-round, the supporting cast must maintain its level of excellence it displayed throughout the regular-season.
(Photo of Roger Mason/CH/Project Spurs)