By Jeff McDonald
As the losses piled up to unthinkable heights, and the Spurs’ once unapproachable lead in the Western Conference dwindled to next to nothing, Matt Bonner found himself looking back in time and across an ocean for perspective.
Playing for an Italian team, Sicilia Messina, as a professional rookie in 2003, Bonner not only endured a losing streak longer than the one the Spurs ended Sunday with a 114-97 demolition of Phoenix. His team finished dead last.
“It wasn’t my fault though,” Bonner said. “The team went bankrupt, and a couple guys stopped showing up.”
Say this much about the Spurs’ six-game losing streak, the club’s longest since 1996-97: At least the checks still cleared.
The frustration-venting that occurred Sunday at the ATT Center was more priceless than any paycheck for the Spurs, even if it came at the expense of a Suns team now eliminated from playoff contention.
George Hill scored 29 points, Bonner broke out of a personal slump of his own, and the Spurs’ bench sparked the team’s first victory since a March 21 win over Golden State that only feels like last season.
After the win, which came with Suns guard Steve Nash at home with the flu, the Spurs ? got bonus help from Denver, which ended the Lakers’ nine-game winning streak. That pushed the Spurs’ cushion in the West back to 2 1/2 games.
The Spurs (58-19) clinched the Southwest Division when Dallas went on to lose at Portland on Sunday night. It’s the club’s 17th division crown overall.
More than that, it gave the Spurs assurance that the team that won 57 of its first 70 games still lurked somewhere inside them.
“It’s all about confidence,” Bonner said. “We lost some during the losing streak. Hopefully, we got some of it back.”
The Spurs, who led by as many as 31, got 63 points off the bench, including Bonner’s first double-double of the season (16 points, 11 rebounds) and 15 points from Gary Neal.
The Spurs’ star, however, was a reserve who had combined for 11 points the previous two games.
Cajoling Hill to revert to his shoot-first roots, coach Gregg Popovich approached the third-year guard with a specific piece of instruction.
“He said, ‘You need to be the Indiana George,’” Hill said.
Hill had little trouble deciphering that code.
“Play like I did in high school and college,” said Hill, the Indianapolis native and IUPUI alum.
Instead, Hill went back to playing like he did last week, when he dumped 57 points on Memphis and Portland. Hill shot 10 of 16, including 4 of 7 from the 3-point line, and by halftime had more points (24) than he’d totaled in all but two other games this season.
“He gave us what Manu (Ginobili) used to give us coming off the bench,” Popovich said.
Hill’s early explosion, which included 11 points in the final 2:01 of the first quarter, boosted the Spurs to a 70-46 lead at intermission, the Suns’ largest halftime deficit of the season.
“We got knocked on our heels early,” said Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry, whose team is lottery-bound one year after sweeping the Spurs from the second round of the playoffs. “When you get that kind of separation, it’s hard to work your way back.”
A victory in their pocket, the weight of the longest losing streak of the Tim Duncan era off their shoulders and the West’s No. 1 seed still in their possession, the Spurs depart for Atlanta fully aware of more work to be done over the final five games.
Still, the Spurs took time to celebrate Sunday. For the first time in 13 days, winning beat losing.
“Losing six in a row, after winning so many games all year, wears on you mentally,” Bonner said. “First and foremost, (it was) get the win, end the losing streak, and try to build off that confidence.”
For Bonner, Sunday meant something else. For the first time in a while, being penniless in Italy did not feel like the good old days.