Thunder's Path to Recovery in West Finals Lies in Healing Minds, Not Bodies

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Thunder's Path to Recovery in West Finals Lies in Healing Minds, Not Bodies
Darren Abate/Associated Press

While the sports universe obsesses over the level of healing in Serge Ibaka's left calf strain since the Thunder acknowledged Friday that Ibaka has gone from "out" to "day-to-day," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks needs to focus on the guys whose bodies have been ready and minds have not.

Before the Thunder take the floor at home Sunday in Game 3 of a Western Conference Finals they trail 2-0, Brooks needs to gather every Thunder player not named Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook in the video room—and roll a playoff highlight montage of the San Antonio Spurs' end-of-bench reserve, Aron Baynes.

Ideally, start it by digging up some footage of Baynes wearing funky foreign uniforms from his days toiling in Lithuania, Germany, Greece and Slovenia—plus some shots of Baynes in a sport coat from all the nights he was on the Spurs' inactive list this season...to make clear just how far down Baynes is on the Spurs' depth chart.

And then, while Durant and Westbrook are left to address reporters or pick out their next flashy game-day wardrobes or do whatever superstars need to do, show the good stuff Baynes has done recently. This footage really does exist—in meaningful minutes, not garbage time—with some of it easily recognizable to the Thunder from Game 1 Monday, when Baynes came off the court at the end of the third quarter and was met by a slew of fists pounded into his chest by stoked Spurs teammates, from Tim Duncan to Jeff Ayres.

When Baynes entered Game 1 in San Antonio with 2:43 left in the third quarter, the Spurs led the Thunder by four points. When Baynes was subbed out 2:03 into the fourth quarter, the Spurs led the Thunder by 13 points.

Eric Gay/Associated Press
Aron Baynes has emerged from the end of the Spurs' bench to help San Antonio take a 2-0 lead in the West finals.

Baynes was even better in Game 1 of the previous round, when Duncan was quoted postgame as calling Baynes "awesome" after his 10 points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes—and the Spurs beat the visiting Portland Trail Blazers. (Gregg Popovich didn't play Baynes in Game 1 of the first round against the visiting Dallas Mavericks, so one can only imagine the magnitude of the mighty Baynes' impact then.)

The point for Brooks to get across to the Thunder supporting cast is that this sort of "House of Baynes" stuff happens all the time for role players in their home arenas. The Thunder are back in Oklahoma City now, had productive scrimmages Friday to reconnect and tap back into the joy of working together, and it's time for their bit players, riding the confidence provided via the home crowd's enthusiasm, to be game-day difference-makers.

It's a team game, and the solidity of the Thunder's defensive shell is the biggest key to all of this, but that and having guys step up individually are not mutually exclusive.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Brooks can go around the locker room and boost his guys with some heartfelt words to inspire them to be better than anyone expects. And at home they can be better; they can rebuild their confidence so that Ibaka is actually coming back to something worthwhile.

As San Antonio's no-namers have executed like All-Stars, the Thunder's supporting cast appears to be in need of the inspiration Durant offered with his MVP speech, spurring OKC to consecutive victories over the Clippers last round.

It shouldn't be hard. We're talking about Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins, who have championship pedigrees, and Caron Butler, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha, who've been through the playoff wars.

Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones were first-round picks two years ago, when Baynes was between Ikaros Kallitheas and Union Olimpija.

And Baynes' previous claim to fame was being big enough and annoying enough—Thunder All-Rookie second-teamer Steven Adams' exact calling card—to get Dwight Howard ejected from his final game as a Los Angeles Laker in the playoffs last year.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Thunder's Reggie Jackson has scored only 21 points total in the first two games against the Spurs.

As Durant saved co-star Westbrook for last in his MVP speech, Brooks and the Thunder need to save one guy for last in their efforts to resurrect the second unit­: Reggie Jackson.

For the record, Jackson shot 46 percent at home compared to 42 on the road this season—38 percent on threes at home, 30 on the road. His jumper comes and goes, and Jackson hitting it would be huge to restore floor spacing for Durant and Westbrook now. Beyond that, though, the defense-creates-transition-offense action that is Jackson's specialty is precisely what the Thunder need to re-establish themselves back home and energize the crowd.

Jackson was flat-out better than Westbrook in the four regular-season games against San Antonio—all Thunder victories. Jackson averaged the same 21.3 points as Westbrook against the Spurs in the regular season, but Jackson shot 67.9 percent, made 8-of-11 threes and had 18 assists against four turnovers!

But in the playoffs, it has been hard to find any positives for the Thunder against a Spurs team that has crushed them by a combined 52 points in the first two games. Brooks needs to make abundantly clear that the Thunder supporting cast must take this personally: Right now, everyone in the world, including Oklahoma City, believes that Ibaka's return is the only thing that can save this team's season.

If Aron Baynes can do it in the first games of a playoff series in San Antonio, they can all do it in the first Western Conference Finals game in Oklahoma City now.

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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