After two blowout losses that made them look like overmatched also-rans that would barely break the San Antonio Spurs' stride on the way to a second straight NBA finals berth, the Oklahoma City Thunder got back into the Western Conference finals in a big way with a Game 3 win that welcomed the injured Serge Ibaka to the series and gave some Spurs fans an unsettling case of 2012 déjà vu. After another day of rest and treatment, the Thunder's shot-blocking power forward is reportedly feeling fine and raring to go in Game 4; can Oklahoma City keep riding the wave of energy he brought to even things up, or will San Antonio return to form to take command of the series?
Here are three things to keep in mind as you tune in on Tuesday night.
1. Can Tony Parker bounce back?
That's one silver lining for San Antonio fans: Their point guard can't be much worse than he was in Game 3, when he shot just 4 for 13 from the floor with four turnovers, including cough-ups on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter, and scored just two points on 10 drives to the basket, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data. The combination of a strong on-ball defensive effort by Thunder counterpart Russell Westbrook and the lurking presence of Ibaka behind the first level seemed to throw off Parker's rhythm and disrupt his balance from nearly the opening tip, and he never regained his footing.
“He's our best player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Parker. “He's got to play better.”
With Ibaka back patrolling the paint and taking away the kind of easy drives and layup opportunities that Parker and his teammates saw in Games 1 and 2, the key to Tony bouncing back could be getting off the schneid from midrange.
Parker has struggled at the rim and in the paint whenever Ibaka's been on the floor for most of the last three seasons — he's just 40 for 94 (42.6 percent) on shots taken inside 9 feet when Ibaka's on the court over 17 regular- and postseason games from 2011-12 through this series, according to NBA.com's stat tool. It doesn't matter whether he gets all the way to the rim or pulls up in the lane for his patented floater; he still has all kinds of trouble converting looks when Ibaka's in the middle. If screeners like Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter can give Parker enough space in the pick-and-roll for him to step into a couple of open midrange jumpers early, and Parker can cash in on them, it could go a long way toward helping him find the feel for the game that eluded him throughout Game 3.
Seeing some jumpers splash through would surely be a sight for Parker's sore eyes after he's gone just 3 for 13 (23.1 percent) on midrange attempts in this series after hitting them at a 42.1 percent clip during the regular season. Making himself more of a consistent scoring threat could also alleviate some of the Thunder's defensive pressure on Parker's teammates, making it more difficult for Oklahoma City to dial in on the Spurs' other shooters and interior scorers.
"I take a lot of responsibility," Parker said. "That's my job on this team, to get everything going."
If he can't do so on Tuesday, the Thunder will stand a much better chance of sending the series back to San Antonio knotted at two games apiece.
2. Will Scott Brooks stick with the lineup changes that were so successful in Game 3?
While Ibaka's return was the major headline-grabber, there were several other personnel adjustments made by Thunder head coach Scott Brooks that worked out beautifully, too.
After going scoreless on nine field-goal attempts in the first two games of this series, Thabo Sefolosha took a seat in favor of Reggie Jackson. The playmaking reserve point guard repaid Brooks' trust by scoring 15 points to go with five assists, four rebounds and a steal in 37 minutes, and the reconfigured starting lineup — Ibaka, Jackson, Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Durant — outscored San Antonio by seven points in 10 total minutes of work. With plodding veteran center Perkins fighting foul trouble, Brooks leaned on rookie big man Steven Adams, who battled Duncan on the block and paired with Ibaka to prevent San Antonio dribble penetration, chipping in seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks in 27 1/2 minutes.
Little-used swingman Jeremy Lamb, the 2012 first-round draft pick the Thunder received from the Houston Rockets in the James Harden deal, added six points on 3-for-5 shooting with three rebounds in 16 1/2 minutes. Oklahoma City took advantage of its depth on the wings and in the backcourt, with Brooks sliding Durant to power forward a bit more often, with impressive results — lineups featuring either Ibaka or Adams at the five with Durant at the four alongside some combination of OKC wings (Westbrook, Jackson, Lamb, Caron Butler or Derek Fisher) outscored San Antonio by 14 points in 17 minutes of work, according to NBA.com's lineup data, as the Thunder blitzed the Spurs' defense to the tune of 108.6 points per 100 possessions, which would've outstripped even their own top-10 full-season offensive efficiency.
Brooks has proven himself more willing to mix and match his personnel this postseason than he's typically given credit for, most notably in sitting down Sefolosha in favor of Butler in Games 6 and 7 of Oklahoma City's first-round win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
"I get knocked as a coach that we don't make changes," he said Monday. "We've won 60 games for a lot of years or in the high 50s, and our medical staff deserves a lot of credit because we don't have guys that get hurt."
While Brooks has been more willing to change things up as needed this postseason, he has also at times seemed uncomfortable with shifting away from players, like Perkins and Sefolosha, whom he trusts on the defensive end but who limit Oklahoma City's offensive effectiveness and put more pressure on Durant and Westbrook to do all of the scoring and playmaking. If the Spurs open up with more effective offensive play on Tuesday, it will be interesting to see if Brooks is willing to stay with lineups that have proven capable of scoring in bunches but that might spring leaks defensively, or if he'll hew closer to his more conservative roots.
"Like I tell all the guys, you have to be ready. You have to be ready to play," he said. "It's a cliché, but it actually happens. It's something that [Lamb] has to be ready, Perry [Jones III] has to be ready, Nick [Collison], Thabo, whoever we call on, they have to be ready to play high‑level minutes.
"I think our guys have adjusted well the last two times we've [changed our lineup," Brooks added. "We might have to do it again."
Brooks' definition of "have to" — which has at times differed from that of many other observers — could wind up being pretty important in Game 4.
3. Can the Spurs hit some open jumpers?
With Ibaka back in the lineup on Sunday, the Thunder defense seemed stingier not only on the interior, but also outside the paint, as San Antonio shot just 6 for 23 (26.1 percent) from between the lane and the 3-point arc en route to just their seventh sub-40-percent shooting performance of the season.
"We were not sharp enough offensively to find open teammates, so every shot was a little more contested and uncomfortable," said Manu Ginobili, the only Spur to get it going offensively in Game 3 (a team-high 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting, including a 6-for-9 mark from 3-point land).
The thing is, that's not exactly true. According to the SportVU tracking data, San Antonio actually took 41 uncontested shots — defined as a field-goal attempt taken with no defender within four feet of the shooter — in Game 3, their most of the series. They only knocked down 13 of them, though, for a 31.7 percent rate that stands as San Antonio's lowest of these playoffs.
Not all open shots are created equal, of course; some of those attempts came late in the shot clock, others came with defenders closing but just outside that four-foot range, etc. But when reviewing the tape, the eye test generally backs up the numbers, with Kawhi Leonard (a 40 percent 3-point shooter in the postseason prior to Game 3) rimming out three good open looks, Danny Green (51 percent in the playoffs pre-Game 3, including 11 for 15 in Games 1 and 2) front-rimming several clean pull-up triples, and Boris Diaw (42 percent in the playoffs before Game 3) missing five open jumpers, including three long balls.
That trio combined to go 5 for 21 on what SportVU identified as uncontested looks. If just a couple more of those go down, the Spurs might've been right back in the swing of things, even with Ibaka back, even with Adams flourishing in the middle, and even with Durant and Westbrook getting to the line seemingly at will.
"They trusted Ibaka and Adams to do a great job, which they did, altering shots and blocking shots," Green said Monday. "But for the most part, I think we got some good open looks. Just didn't make many."
That can't continue on Tuesday if the Spurs hope to take a commanding 3-1 lead back to San Antonio.
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