How Spurs' lineup change finally helped them beat Serge Ibaka

How Spurs' lineup change finally helped them beat Serge Ibaka

SAN ANTONIO – Serge Ibaka knew San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was going to make some kind of change. After the Oklahoma City Thunder had beaten the Spurs handily in consecutive games to even the Western Conference finals, Ibaka understood enough about Popovich to know the coach wasn't going to just sit back.

About five minutes before Thursday's Game 5 tipoff, Ibaka found out Popovich's tactical adjustment when Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant told him sharpshooter Matt Bonner was replacing center Tiago Splitter in the Spurs' lineup.

"Kevin told me, 'You're going to guard Bonner,' " Ibaka said. "So I was kind of surprised. …They have [a] great coach and he makes some adjustments for [Thursday night's] game. And it was good for them."

Good enough for the Spurs to rout the Thunder 117-89 to take a 3-2 series lead and move within a game of returning to the NBA Finals.

Bonner didn't score a single point, but his presence – along with that of Boris Diaw, who started the second half in Bonner's place – forced Ibaka to go out to the 3-point line to guard the shooters and opened up the Spurs' offense. The Spurs had previously lost all seven games against the Thunder this season in which Ibaka played.

Manu Ginobili (left) scored 19 points in the Spurs' Game 5 win. (AP)

"It worked for a while," Popovich said. "I'm not too interested in talking to you about specifics, about what things worked or didn't work. I'd rather have other people figure it out."

The Spurs won the first two games of the West finals with ease with Ibaka sidelined because of a calf injury. The Thunder initially claimed Ibaka would be out for the remainder of the playoffs only to have him return for Game 3 and change the series. Ibaka averaged 12 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City to spark two blowout wins for the Thunder.

The Spurs revealed Bonner would start for Splitter about 15 minutes before tipoff of Game 5. Fans following NBA media on Twitter knew Bonner was starting before Ibaka did.

"After we beat them, I knew something was coming because he's a good coach," Ibaka said.

After scoring 97 and 92 points, respectively, in their Games 3 and 4 losses, the Spurs totaled 94 points through the first three quarters of Game 5. They scored inside and out, totaling 40 points in the paint while also making 13 of 26 3-pointers.

Ibaka blocked two shots, grabbed two rebounds and scored six points.

"Now we have to choose what we're going to give them," Ibaka said. "Are we going to give them the paint or …"

The Spurs also carved up Oklahoma City's defense with their passing. They had 23 assists and had six players score in double-figures. Instead of driving into Ibaka and allowing him to block or alter their shots, the Spurs did a better job of finding teammates open or cutting to the basket.

"They passed the [expletive] out of the ball," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said.

The Spurs played Game 5 with little hangover from their two blowout losses.

"This is a final four team standing out of 30 and you would think they're professional enough to understand that you might win one, you might lose one," Popovich said. "Don't get too excited about yourself if you win, and don't hang your head and do a pity party if you lose. You know what's important is the next game, just like the next play is important."

The Thunder received another big scoring night from Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 46 points. Durant is the NBA's MVP and Westbrook is one of the league's most feared scorers and athletes. But against the Spurs, the Thunder's real MVP is Ibaka. Prior to Game 5, Oklahoma City had won 12 of its past 14 against San Antonio with Ibaka.

Popovich and the Spurs adjusted. Now, it's the Thunder's turn to respond.

"Next game we're going to figure it out, too," Ibaka said.