It isn't as simple as just getting Serge Ibaka back in the lineup — at this stage of the season, with teams of this quality, it's never just about one thing. But after being totally outgunned and outclassed by the San Antonio Spurs through the first two games of the Western Conference finals, the defensive tone-setter's return was certainly a big thing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, one that helped tilt Game 3 from nearly the opening tip and helped Scott Brooks' squad show sustained signs of life for the first time in this series.
Ibaka's presence and production helped alter the series' established dynamics on Sunday night, as he worked through his wounded wheel en route to a 15-point, seven-rebound, four-block performance in 29 1/2 huge minutes that propelled the Thunder to a 106-97 Game 3 win. The victory gets Oklahoma City on the board in the Western Conference finals and cuts San Antonio's lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1, setting up a very, very interesting Game 4 on Tuesday.
The 24-year-old shot-blocker had been expected to miss the remainder of the postseason with a left calf strain, but recovered faster than anticipated and landed back in Brooks' starting lineup on Sunday. While the Spurs might not have been surprised that reports of Ibaka's demise were premature, they didn't seem to be prepared for just how lively he'd look, as the Congolese big man changed the game on both ends of the floor.
"I just tried to give my teammates some energy, on defense and offense, and try to make my presence in the paint, and rebound," Ibaka told TNT's David Aldridge after the game.
After announcing before the game that the returning big man would start and play with no restrictions, Brooks made sure to get Ibaka involved in the offense early, getting him a touch on Oklahoma City's first possession:
Ibaka would open the game 4 for 4 from the floor, scoring eight points — or one fewer than Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison managed in the first two games combined — in his first 6:15 of floor time, to go with three rebounds and two blocks.
On the offensive end, he gave the Thunder an important bit of half-court spacing, making three of his four midrange tries while also looking spry enough to attack off the bounce and get into the paint when called upon. He was a defensive menace at the rim all night long, discouraging San Antonio's dribblers from making the forays into the paint on which they feasted in Games 1 and 2, and punishing them for their daring when they actually got inside:
After rolling up a staggering 120 total points in the paint on 66.7 percent shooting in the lane with Ibaka sitting for Games 1 and 2, the Spurs managed just 40 paint points on 47.6 percent shooting in Game 3. That's almost exactly in line with what they put up inside — 41.5 points per game in the paint on 49.1 percent shooting — against Oklahoma City during the Thunder's four-game regular-season sweep. (Ibaka played in all four of those games.)
With Ibaka lurking behind the first line of defense, drives that led to layups earlier in the series resulted in floaters and contested tries, or in the Spurs pulling the ball out, resetting their offense and going one-on-one rather than being able to collapse the defense, draw help and kick out to find open shooters. In sum, the San Antonio offensive attack that looked so precise, so powerful, so impossible to stop in Game 2 was taken out of its rhythm and reduced to a coughing, sputtering lemon.
"We did a great job to make them take some tough shots," Ibaka told Aldridge.
And with the exception of reserve guard Manu Ginobili — a team-high 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting, including a 6-for-9 mark from 3-point land, to go with four assists and two steals in just under 24 minutes — the Spurs couldn't convert. San Antonio shot 39.6 percent from the floor as a team, marking the first time they've been held below 40 percent shooting in this postseason and just the seventh time in 98 games this season.
Ibaka's presence in the paint seemed to throw Tony Parker, particularly, off his game from the get-go. The Spurs point guard missed four of his first five shots and never quite found his rhythm; he committed uncharacteristically bad turnovers on three straight possessions in the second quarter, seemed off-balance on his drives near the basket, and just looked a second and a step off in his timing all night, finishing with nine points on 4-for-13 shooting, four assists and four turnovers in 28 minutes.
Still, despite the early struggles of Parker and Tim Duncan (3 for 8 in the first quarter), and the Ibaka-sparked hot-shooting start for the Thunder (12 for 17 from the floor in the opening 12 minutes), Oklahoma City led by only one, 29-28, after the first quarter, thanks in large part to San Antonio getting extra possessions on the glass (five offensive rebounds for San Antonio in the first quarter) and off Thunder turnovers (seven cough-ups leading to seven Spurs points). And though both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — and especially Russ — started to cook in the second quarter, the Spurs were still within four at halftime, thanks largely to OKC continuing to give it up (12 by intermission, leading to 14 Spurs points) and Ginobili popping for 20 in the first half.
Oklahoma City afforded the Spurs multiple opportunities to come back in the third quarter, as the Thunder just couldn't get anything going from the floor, missing 13 of their 17 field-goal attempts in the frame and going 0 for 5 from long range. But San Antonio couldn't take advantage, failing to create good looks on the interior against a Thunder defense committed to walling off the lane — just seven of their 25 shots in the third came inside the restricted area — while also failing to find their shooting range, going 6 for 18 away from the rim.
The Thunder, meanwhile, continued to attack the paint, pushing the action, drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line — Oklahoma City went 18 for 22 from the stripe in the third quarter alone, with Durant (6 for 6) and Westbrook (4 for 4) leading the way. Jump-shooting San Antonio didn't attempt a single freebie in the frame, allowing Oklahoma City to take an 83-76 lead into the fourth quarter.
San Antonio came up empty on its first three possessions of the fourth, with reserve Boris Diaw missing a wide-open straight-on 3-pointer (a problem all night for the big Frenchman, who did contribute six rebounds and six assists, but shot just 3 for 10 from the field and missed a bunch of good looks, including all three from downtown), backup point guard Patty Mills turning it over on an iffy offensive foul call for kicking his leg out while draining a corner 3-pointer, and Diaw missing another long ball. Oklahoma City, for their part, got seven points on their first three trips of the quarter — a Reggie Jackson layup that paid off a pair of hustled-for offensive rebounds, a Durant runner that was harder than it looked, and a Caron Butler right-corner 3 that had the veteran dialing long-distance:
... much to the delight of the Oklahoma City bench, including little-used giant Hasheem Thabeet:
... and pushed OKC's lead to 90-76 with 10:11 left in the fourth. The Thunder increased the lead to 17 with just under seven minutes remaining. At the 6:08 mark, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich officially waved the white flag, yanking his starters — save for shooting guard Danny Green, who went from red-hot at home to ice-cold (3 for 12 from the floor, 2 for 6 from 3-point land) at Chesapeake Energy Arena — and preferring to keep what was left of his powder dry for Game 4.
An awful lot went well for Oklahoma City on Sunday besides Ibaka's return. Brooks' other starting lineup change — sitting down the struggling Thabo Sefolosha in favor of Jackson — paid off handsomely, as the playmaking reserve point guard put pressure on the Spurs' defense with his penetration all night, scoring 15 points to go with five assists, four rebounds and a steal in 37 minutes. So, too, did the decision — aided by some fortuitous foul trouble for Perkins — to lean more heavily on Steven Adams, as the rookie center did yeoman's work battling Duncan on the block while teaming with Ibaka to shut down the paint, chipping in seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks of his own in 27 1/2 minutes.
Sophomore swingman Jeremy Lamb, who rang up 13 points in garbage time in the Thunder's blowout Game 2 loss, was ready when called upon on Sunday, making three of his five shots for six points to go with three rebounds in 16 1/2 minutes, the most he's played since early April. Neither Sefolosha nor Collison got off the bench in Game 3; Brooks went smaller and more athletic more often, and the moves paid dividends.
The biggest move of all, though, was being able to move Ibaka back into the four spot in the starting lineup, to rely on him to protect the paint and relieve pressure in half-court offensive sets, and give every other member of the Thunder the confidence to push just a bit harder, knowing that their big-time backstop was behind them once again. How Ibaka's calf responds to playing for the first time in 10 days remains to be seen, but barring a drastic step-back between now and Tuesday's Game 4, he's planning to keep giving them that confidence.
"I will try to help my teammates," he told Aldridge. "I will try to do my best I can to be everywhere, contest shots, rebound, run the floor. That's it."
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