Not time for Spurs to press panic button … yet
The official, post-lockout word in the NBA’s mighty effort
to generate positive buzz has been “Big.”
Expect big things such as big criticism for the compressed schedule and big
conspiracy chatter over the draft lottery.
But the Oklahoma City Thunder spent Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in
the presence of an anomaly that went beyond the predicting skills of
Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.
Among the surprised were the San Antonio Spurs, who — before Kevin Durant went
rogue in the fourth quarter — seemed relatively helpless while OKC’s three-man
“big” rotation combined to make 22-of-25 shots.
Providing half of the made shots without a miss was Thunder power forward Serge
Ibaka, who scored 26 of the 49 points amassed in a harmonic convergence with
teammates Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison.
With that kind of performance as OKC evened the series at 2-2, one would think
the Thunder post players spent most of the night bending the rim off of
dribble-penetration-and-kick maneuvers. But even though there were plenty of
point-blank opportunities, Ibaka (six), Perkins (two) and Collison (one)
actually took turns making jumpers. In Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio, making
jumpers was something this threesome seemed incapable of accomplishing.
Their presumed capacity for supplying bricks encouraged coach Gregg Popovich
and his Spurs to pack the paint against the expected basket onslaught of the
Thunder’s more skillful employees.
With this demonstration of offensive competence, what is San Antonio’s takeaway
leading into Game 5?
“I wouldn’t change a thing, except to make sure they close out harder and
get a hand up when these guys are loading up to shoot,” an assistant coach who
works for another Western Conference team, said. “With the series going back to
San Antonio, I’d take my chances that Ibaka, Perkins and Collison aren’t going
to shoot anywhere near that accurately again.
“The alternative of keeping closer tabs on those guys means you’re leaving
bigger gaps for Durant, (point guard Russell) Westbrook and (two guard James)
Harden. Westbrook and Harden were 6 of 23 in the last game … and four of the
makes were 3-pointers. If you don’t keep the lane congested, those guys get to
the rim and will shoot a better percentage than the bigs will shoot on the
road. And they’ll create foul situations.
“Durant, obviously, creates another set of problems entirely.”
In addition to pushing Durant a step or two outside his comfort zone and
blindfolding him, the advised strategy is to continue allowing Ibaka and his
baseline cronies to fire away … with a hand up?
“If those guys shoot anywhere near that well again,” the assistant
said, “you just … well, I just don’t see it happening.”
According to hoopdata.com, Ibaka was a bitter 25 percent this season on shots
taken within 10-15 feet of the rim. In Game 4, he was 6 for 6. Perkins made 21
percent of his attempts from that range during the season, but made 2 of the 3
he unleashed Saturday night.
How about the change-of-venue factor?
Ibaka’s comprehensive shot chart (including each screaming dunk) reveals the
league’s best shot-blocker shoots 60 percent at home, but dips to 47 percent
when playing out of town. Perkins is a 57 percent threat in OKC, and a 41
percent shooter on the road.
Perkins, whose dreadful pick-and-roll defense in San Antonio was greatly
upgraded over the last two games — and has been a low-post rock while
defending Tim Duncan in the paint — reached double-digit scoring in only 10-of-78
games, including playoffs, this season.
The Game 4 partnership with Ibaka pushes the number of times this
season the Thunder’s starting post players have scored in double figures in the same game to four. Ibaka and Perk were double trouble in road games at Utah and
Sacramento, but really worked over the Miami Heat for a combined 35 in an OKC
home rout back in March.
It’ll be interesting to see if they can maintain Saturday’s momentum in a
In the immediate aftershock of Game 4, it widely was suggested that Game 5 will
feature much more work for DeJuan Blair, the burly Spurs power forward. Blair,
who started most of San Antonio’s regular-season games before falling out of
the playoff rotation, would seem better equipped to mix it up inside against
Ibaka, Perkins and Collison. Blair was a solid option during a garbage-time
cameo in Game 3 and he provided some promising moments in Game 4.
But his ability to hold defensive position in the paint isn’t that necessary,
because OKC rarely throws the ball to Ibaka, Perkins or Collison in the post.
Of their 22 made shots in Game 4, 10 were penetration-created layups, dunks or
With Blair on the floor next to Duncan, the Spurs offense — which already
needs to create wider gaps for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — would be
without a seemingly necessary floor spacer.
“Sure, a lot of these things seem like serious problems right now,” the
assistant coach said. “Oklahoma City has an outstanding team that a lot of
people believe can win it all, me included. But, just like we saw when the
Thunder returned home, a lot of these problems can be overcome when you have
about 20,000 fans on your side.”
For the time being, that opinion should provide San Antonio some NBA-sanctioned