Gregg Popovich’s first starting-lineup adjustment of the playoffs changes Spurs’ fortunes

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The San Antonio Spurs have a clear starting-lineup philosophy.

Actually, they have two.

In the regular season, they rest and experiment. With top players frequently getting nights off, Gregg Popovich often tests new combinations. In the playoffs, San Antonio goes with what worked best during all that regular-season shuffling.

Entering their pivotal Game 5 matchup with the Thunder on Thursday, the Spurs’ dichotomy in number of starting lineups was strong:

  • Regular season: 30 (second most in the NBA behind only the Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Playoffs: 1

Thursday, Popovich made an expert adjustment – starting Matt Bonner for Tiago Splitter and then Boris Diaw for Bonner to begin the second half – to spark San Antonio’s offense in a 117-89 win.

Bonner and Diaw pulled Serge Ibaka from the paint, limiting Oklahoma City’s top interior defender and neutralizing the other Thunder who depend on Ibaka’s rim protection to gamble themselves. Inside and out, Bonner and Diaw changed the game.

The Spurs’ offensive rating with Bonner on the court (108.0) Thursday was significantly higher than their overall offensive rating in Game 3 (94.1) and Game 4 (97.2). That’s despite Bonner’s impact being limited to him standing on the perimeter and forcing Ibaka to account for him. He missed all four his shots, and other than two fouls, didn’t register in the box score.

Diaw (13 points on seven shots, including making both his 3-point attempts, with six rebounds and three assists) is much more qualified to handle a major role at this point. San Antonio’s offensive rating launched into the stratosphere with him on the court – an astounding 138.5.

Of course, Diaw and Bonner hardly did it alone. Mostly, their spacing freed their teammates to operate as Thunder stretched their defense thin.

The Spurs are a superb passing team, and with Ibaka on the perimeter, they again moved the ball like when he was completely out in Games 1 and 2. Danny Green, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio to 13-of-26 3-point shooting, and Tim Duncan (22 points and 12 rebounds) worked the Thunder inside.

At heart, these Spurs are an offensive team. They’ve now scored more than 110 points eight times this postseason – tying Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less 2005 Phoenix Suns for the most such games since Popovich began coaching.

Popovich has shifted strategies through years – eschewing grinding defensive teams for running offensive teams. Again in Game 5, Popovich showed his priorities.

Bonner and Diaw are defensive downgrades from Splitter, a tradeoff many coaches wouldn’t make this time of year. Though the Thunder slipped after throwing in the towel late, they scored 111.8 points per 100 possessions with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the floor.

Yet, whatever the Spurs gave up defensively, they more than made up for it offensively.

In hindsight, the move is obvious. San Antonio was -14 in the 27 minutes Splitter and Ibaka had shared the court this series. Minutes into Game 5, it became clear how much changing changing Ibaka’s defensive responsibilities had thrown the Thunder out of whack.

But in the regular season, the Spurs played Oklahoma City even in the 30 minutes Duncan and Splitter shared the court. That’s not so bad for a team that dropped all four matchups against Oklahoma City.

I can’t say with total certainty Popovich – who also made other adjustments like having Kawhi Leonard guard Westbrook, dropping Tony Parker onto Reggie Jackson and Green onto Durant – knew precisely what he was doing. He might have just been grasping at straws after dropping 12 of 14 to the Thunder with Ibaka.

Popovich tends to get more than his share of these decisions right, though – and he got this one right. He gets, and deserves, the benefit of the doubt.

Scott Brooks will have a chance to counter in Game 6 Saturday, and perhaps he’ll use more small lineups with Caron Butler or even Jeremy Lamb in place of Kendrick Perkins. The Spurs have relinquished their ability to pound Oklahoma City inside offensively, and they’re exposed to more-skilled offensive opponents picking them apart. Then again, there’s only so much a coach known for lacking a deep playbook can do.

The Thunder gained a huge advantage with Ibaka returning, but San Antonio had the biggest advantage in this series – a 2-0 lead. That allowed the Spurs margin for error, extra time for the NBA’s best coach to adjust.

It took a few games, but Popovich has the Spurs’ offense humming once again and one win from another trip to the NBA Finals.