This was back in 2005, Bonner’s second season in Toronto. The Raptors were playing a preseason game against Boston in Manchester, N.H., not far from Bonner’s hometown of Concord. Coach Sam Mitchell put the local kid in the starting lineup for the benefit of friends and family in the stands.
“I scored 13 points on Paul Pierce,” recalled the 6-foot-10 Bonner, a big man by trade. “Honestly, I don’t think he was trying very hard.”
In Monday’s loss at Golden State, Bonner was back in the starting lineup as a supersized small forward, this time in the regular season, forced to chase smaller, quicker perimeter players around the arc.
“Once I got my fourth wind, I was OK,” Bonner said.
With one game left in the regular season, the Spurs are still searching for their second.
Boondoggled by injuries, attrition and their coach’s stubborn insistence on keeping older veterans fresh for the postseason grind to come, the Spurs have lost seven of their past 12 games heading into Wednesday night’s finale against Minnesota.
The team that began March atop the Western Conference at 46-14 has gone 12-9 since and is desperately seeking a foothold before the playoffs begin this weekend.
Assured of the No. 2 seed, the Spurs have nothing tangible left for which to play. So Wednesday against the Timberwolves, they will play for the intangible.
“Going into the playoffs, you want to be clicking on all cylinders,” guard Gary Neal said. “You want that game for everybody to play well, that way you can have confidence in the playoffs.”
Mired in a month-long slump that has tested coach Gregg Popovich’s patience and even their hardiest fans’ resolve, the Spurs have one more shot at gaining confidence before the postseason begins.
It is a far cry from last season, when the Spurs soared into the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak, then won 10 more in a row to start the playoffs before fizzling in the Western Conference finals.
Popovich has indicated he might approach Wednesday’s game with something resembling a full deck. Even sixth man Manu Ginobili, who has missed the past nine games healing a right hamstring strain, could suit up.
It is a playoff tune-up, and though Popovich won’t tax his older players to win it, he certainly sees value in playing well.
“You certainly don’t want to go into the playoffs playing like a dog,” Popovich said.
It could be argued there is nothing wrong with the Spurs that an influx of healthy bodies won’t repair.
Tony Parker has been in and out of the lineup since spraining an ankle March 1. Ginobili has been largely absent. Boris Diaw is out for the start of the playoffs after surgery to have a cyst excised from his back.
Some players have had to play comically out of position (see Bonner’s small forward debut). Others, such as backup point guards Cory Joseph and Nando De Colo and reserve forward DeJuan Blair, have had larger roles thrust upon them.
Tuesday, the Spurs signed 33-year-old former scoring champion Tracy McGrady, and he will have to be integrated.
“I’m sure it’s not a perfect situation,” Bonner said. “We all try to stay focused on getting better no matter what the lineup is. You try to get something out of it.”
At a time when Popovich would prefer to be putting together a plan for the playoffs, he has instead been forced to occasionally rely on lineups that will never appear in the postseason.
It hasn’t been an optimal April.
And now the Spurs’ month-long and mostly fruitless search for postseason momentum is down to its last shot.
“It’s a weird situation,” Neal said. “You can’t look too much at the record because we weren’t whole as a group. We’ll be whole Wednesday. We’ll try to build from there.”