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Camouflage Uniforms Can’t Hide Stellar Bench Play

By Jeff Koch on November 13, 2013.

Washington 79, San Antonio 92

It was getting ugly on the court, and I’m not talking about those camo uniforms. (Personally, I kind of liked them.)

There were about 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, the Spurs had perilously let a large lead slip away, and the game had turned completely ragged. The once crisp offensive execution was gone, and both teams were dragging due to a longer than usual period of time without a timeout or stoppage of play. A sure win was no longer.

But the starters were just holding space for the bench. Washington called a timeout, the Spurs brought in their second unit, and *POOF* the game was blown wide open again. On the back of energy, a frenetic pace, and insanely creative ball movement, the bench put the game out of hand in about 3 minutes.

Just as they had done in the first half. The starters started strong again, but it was the bench’s first shift that blew the first half wide open before the Wizards clawed their way back into it. In the second half they put the nails into the coffin, allowing the starters the rest of the night off and the third-string to get some more valuable court time.

The starters played well, though Duncan had a pretty uncharacteristically bad offensive night. But our bench, when clicking, is something else. It really revolves around 4 players: Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills, with the 5th player rotating. Look at those names again. Manu, Marco, and Boris are all preternaturally gifted passers with good handle and insane court vision. Patty Mills is a whirling dervish, always in motion, always causing havoc, and a knock down shooter. In the first half, Tiago got a shift with them, and he fit like a glove. As the big Big man in that unit, he got to show off some post work, and we all know how adept he is in the pick and roll game. In the second half, Ayres got the majority of the time with the unit, where his energy was a natural fit, and he finally found some offensive rhythm with all of the playmakers around him.

The bench unit really is a dream on its best nights. It can blow a game wide open against lesser bench units, and hold ground against other teams’ better players. It has scoring, ball movement, ball handlers, and players that just know how to play with each other. The defense isn’t as stout as the first unit, but it has more energy, more movement, and can create more chaos. And with either Ayres or Splitter, it does have better than average rim protection.

Over the last few seasons we’ve all watched Ginobili start to dip in ability and productivity. Part of this was too much burden being put on him as the sole creator of the second unit. With Diaw, Mills, and Belinelli playing with him, the weight of the bench no longer falls on Manu’s shoulders, and he can play within himself and let his strengths carry him for his shifts.

My other favorite part of this game was Splitter. He’s quietly had a very good season, only being set back by his almost comical inability to finish at the rim. But the process and execution was there: through his hard work and knowledge of the system, he was getting the shots we want him to get. That’s the victory. Hopefully the finishing will start to come. Tonight, he converted a few more shots and was a much bigger factor in both the offense and the defense. He even had a highlight worthy block on John Wall. His defense is getting better, both with and without Duncan on the floor, and he is smart and reliable in the offense.

Over the off-season the Spurs re-signed Tiago to a 4-year contract at about $9 million per year. To many, this seemed a bit high. But it’s a fair price and the right move. There was no other big man the Spurs were going to find that would be a better fit for the team’s very narrow remaining championship window, and in the NBA, you pay by the inch. Big men always have and will continue to get rich contracts. You can’t teach size. Splitter is a consistent member of solid line-ups, plays well with both the starters and the bench, and is a legitimately “big” big man. He works hard, he plays smart, and he fits the team culture perfectly. I’m happy to have him back.

The Spurs travel to Utah to face the Jazz Friday night. The Jazz just got their first win of the season and are at the bottom of the league right now. But playing in Utah is never fun.

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