It’s tough to say exactly what percent Serge Ibaka was playing at Sunday night in his return to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup, but it didn’t take a seasoned analyst to see that the Thunder were 100 percent better with their injured third star back on the floor. Their 106-97 win at home cut the Spurs’ edge in the Western Conference finals to 2-1.
After the Thunder ruled Ibaka out for the remainder of the playoffs with an injured calf suffered in Game 6 against the Clippers just a week ago, the team did its best to move on without the big man in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio. But the results were embarrassing, and two thorough beatings combined with some positive news regarding the severity of Ibaka’s condition necessitated Ibaka’s return, lest Oklahoma City be swept out of the postseason by a San Antonio team it swept in the regular season.
Little was known about just how effective Ibaka would be coming in — heck, most people weren’t even sure if he was even going to play until a couple hours before game time — but he made his presence felt quickly on both ends of the floor. And his play, both as a deterrent at the rim and an offensive weapon, also seemed to breathe some life into a Thunder team in desperate need of resuscitation.
There is still the little matter, of course, of OKC being able to replicate Sunday’s performance three more times to advance to the NBA Finals, but at the very least, the prospect of a Thunder rally no longer seems quite as unfathomable as it did just a few days ago.
Takeaway: After watching Gregg Popovich sub out his starters early in nearly every game for the last couple weeks, it was kind of refreshing to see him do it because the Spurs were the ones getting whooped, not doing the whooping. But unlike the lone Portland win over San Antonio in the conference semifinals, this Spurs loss didn’t feel like a fluke, but rather, a potential sign of things to come.
Ibaka got the party started early, leading OKC in points (8 — on 4-of-4 shooting), rebounds (3) and blocks (2) in just 6:15 on the floor in the first quarter. And it was his play that helped hold things together for Oklahoma City while Russell Westbrook eased into the game. But once Westbrook finally arrived — he didn’t score until the 6:02 mark of the second quarter — he immediately shifted into high gear, and brought Kevin Durant along with him.
And just how high a gear was it? When Westbrook scored on a layup from Durant 9:29 to play in the third, it marked the 20th and 21st straight OKC points scored by Westbrook or Durant, eight of them coming at the free-throw line. The pair’s success at getting to the basket and drawing fouls continued throughout a third quarter that saw the Thunder take 22 free throws to zero for the Spurs, and that disparity at the line helped Oklahoma City overcome a poor 3-point shooting effort that they can’t afford to duplicate in Game 4 and beyond.
Star Review: By the time Westbrook subbed out for good with his team up by 20 with 3:17 left to play, the star guard — who capped his night with a spectacular missed dunk — had nearly registered his fourth triple-double of these playoffs, with 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Durant added 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Reggie Jackson played well in his first start of the playoffs with 15 points in nearly 37 minutes of action (though he’ll want to clean up that 1-of-6 mark from 3).
But the real reason for OKC’s revival on Sunday was the team’s play on defense, where the Thunder, led by Ibaka, held the Spurs to just 39.6-percent shooting for the game. Virtually every Spurs player who was hot in the first two games was not in Game 3, as Tony Parker (nine points, 4-of-13 shooting), Kawhi Leonard (10 points, 4 of 11), Danny Green (eight points, 3 of 12) and Boris Diaw (six points, 3 of 10) all struggled without the benefit of so many easy baskets at the rim. Even Tim Duncan (16 points, 7 of 17) looked uncomfortable at times and was unable to unleash his entire repertoire around the rim — even more evidence of the ripple effect caused by Ibaka’s return.
If you subtract the hot hand of Manu Ginobili (23 points, 6 of 9 from 3), San Antonio would have shot just 35.9 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from 3 in Game 3. While Spurs fans would like to think there will be something of a return to form in Game 4, it’s going to take a sea change from just about every player on the San Antonio roster to avoid going back home with the series tied.
Looking Ahead: Game 4 at Oklahoma City, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET
What To Look For: It sounds like oversimplification to say that Ibaka’s return, alone, could be the key to Oklahoma City winning this series, but the fact is this: The Thunder swept the Spurs in the regular season, and Ibaka was a major player in all four OKC wins, averaging 14 points per game on 46.3-percent shooting with 11.5 rebounds and four blocks per game. His length and nose for the ball on defense and his ability to stretch the floor on offense present challenges that San Antonio doesn’t seem to have an answer for, and when Ibaka is playing well, it turns the entire Spurs game plan on its side.
If Popovich can’t find a way to equalize Ibaka, then Spurs fans aren’t going to like the direction this series will go from here on out; but if there’s any coach in the league equipped to come up with an answer, it’s Pop. Look for the Spurs to attack the basket and do what they can to keep Ibaka off the floor in Game 4, because getting him in foul trouble could be the answer to regaining control of this series. Unfortunately, Ibaka isn’t especially foul-prone (he had just 15 five-foul games and no foul-outs this season), so doing so will be easier said than done, but taking fewer long 2s — San Antonio was just 6-of-23 on 2-point shots outside the paint Sunday — might be a good place to start.
What once looked like a sweep in the making is now looking like a battle that could come down to the wire, but the Spurs need to remember that they’re still the ones in control — something they no doubt understand, given the team’s past successes with this same unit. If San Antonio can manage a win in Game 4, all of Game 3’s shortcomings will be forgotten, and you’ll have to like the Spurs chances of closing out in Game 5 at home. But if Oklahoma City goes back to Texas for Game 5 having knotted up the series at two games apiece, all bets are off.