If this is the last run for the San Antonio Spurs as we know them, they're making it count.
The Spurs have reeled off wins in seven of their last eight games dating back to Round 1, with none coming by less than 17 points. Keep in mind that we're in the playoffs in one of the best regular-season conferences in basketball history.
And Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are just stunting on everyone. Upstarts in Portland and Oklahoma City have been eviscerated with a brand of basketball that is beautiful enough for a French museum. Crisp passes, dynamite rotations and masterful game-planning may be "boring" for highlight-gawking casual fans, but those who want to see the game at its purest form are getting a show for the ages.
The Spurs have been so dominant since Round 1 it makes you go back and appreciate how close the Mavericks were to knocking them off. Hat tip again goes to you, Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki. To nearly stop the unstoppable is a commendable moral victory of its own.
Yet...we've been here before. Two years ago, San Antonio looked like an absolute juggernaut. Twenty straight wins, two straight sweeps of overmatched playoff opponents and a seemingly overmatched Thunder team standing in its way.
The similarities are more superficial than anything at this point. The Spurs are better than in 2012. Oklahoma City is worse. But with Serge Ibaka possibly returning for Game 3, the Thunder might not be as dead as they seem. Let's quickly check in with a preview of Sunday's action and assess whether history has a chance of repeating itself.
When: Sunday, May 25 at 8:30 p.m.
Stream: TNT Overtime
Will Serge Ibaka Play? If He Does, How Effective Will He Be?
To the surprise of everyone not on the San Antonio bench, the Thunder sent out a release Friday afternoon, indicating Ibaka was now listed day-to-day after the swelling in his injured calf went down. He was previously considered out for the playoffs—which for many wrote the story of the series before it went down.
‘‘His progress in the last several days has been surprising,’’ Thunder general manager Sam Presti told reporters, per The Boston Globe. ‘‘I don’t think any of us thought we’d be standing here talking about this. We’re grateful that we are.’’
There has been no concrete indication about whether Ibaka will play Sunday. Presti also did not indicate what—if any—minute limitations will be in place.
"It's 100 percent going to hurt," Ibaka told reporters, per ESPN.com. "For sure if the doctor gives me the OK and I feel better tomorrow, I will be 100 percent with the pain for sure, but like I said, I'm going to do whatever it takes to help my team."
For the sake of argument, let's just assume Ibaka is playing. What does this mean for the Thunder?
In scientific terms: a ton.
Ibaka is the axis around which Oklahoma City's defensive system rotates. The Thunder are one of the league's most aggressive teams on the pick-and-roll, jumping out at the ball-handler at the point of attack. Perhaps only Miami creates more havoc for opposing ball-handlers.
If that initial aggression doesn't throw an offense off-kilter, though, the Thunder are often left scrambling in rotations to cover what amounts to a four-on-three situation. That's a miserable outcome against the Spurs, who can find the right pass in their slumber. San Antonio has killed Oklahoma City in the half court all series via a barrage of three-pointers and shots at the rim—most of which begin with a pick-and-roll action.
Ibaka is smart and talented enough to clean up some of these messes. He's a long, athletic freak who has played in Scott Brooks' system long enough to know how to sit on multiple passing angles. By no means is he a steals fiend, but ball-handlers know when he's in the area and are far less likely to make a risky pass than when, say, Steven Adams is covering the same ground.
Nowhere is Ibaka's length and athleticism more important than at the rim. Opposing players shot just 43.9 percent during the regular season when he was within five feet of the rim, per SportVU data provided by the NBA. That's as close to Roy Hibbert-esque as you're going to get without actually signing Hibbert.
This is important, mostly because the Spurs have been murderously good near the basket in this series. They've knocked down 76.8 percent of their shots in the restricted area through the first two games.
Essentially, every San Antonio player has been LeBron James.
When an opponent dominates the two most important areas of the floor, that's typically not the easiest road to victory for the other team. Even at 60 percent, Ibaka would mitigate the need for Adams and Kendrick Perkins to play extended minutes while giving the Thunder an elite defender in the middle. That's obviously a very good thing.
OK, Fine. But What About Everything Else?
The Spurs aren't winning this series only because Ibaka has missed the first two games. He is an All-Star-caliber player, but he's not erase-a-52-point-scoring-differential good. There might not have been any player on the planet capable of pushing the Thunder to wins in Game 1 and Game 2.
Oklahoma City's offense was as bad as I've ever seen it Wednesday night. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 30 points on 13-of-40 shooting. The #LETWESTBROOKBEWESTBROOK contingent watched as he continually gave into his worst impulses, while Durant looked completely unengaged at points.
Westbrook will get the brunt of the blame because he's Westbrook, but Durant has been just as bad this series. Kawhi Leonard has been an absolute hound, playing physically while never really going over the edge.
Durant has attempted just nine free throws in the first two games. This in many ways has mirrored the Thunder's first-round series against Memphis, where Tony Allen turned Durant into strictly a jump shooter at times.
The issues with Oklahoma City's offense are the same as always. Nearly every possession begins with a smart, seemingly well-designed action. The Thunder, like every team, have a few pet plays they execute better than anyone else simply from repetition.
Good offenses have second and third actions built into their pet sets for when the initial play breaks down. The Thunder shrug, kick the ball out and then run an isolation or quick pick-and-roll for Westbrook or Durant. Whoever. Doesn't matter.
Just put the ball in one of their hands and hope something good happens.
Westbrook and Durant are so good that, statistically, Oklahoma City has an elite offense. However, when playing a master strategist like Popovich and a veteran-laden roster like the Spurs over a long series—one with long breaks between games—things can go to hell rather quickly.
Few teams are better than San Antonio at sabotaging a team's initial action, and none are smarter at contesting shots. The Spurs have contested 111 of Oklahoma City's 169 (65.6 percent) shot attempts in this series. It's almost unfair how good they are at staying at home and getting a hand in a shooter's face.
Not even a league MVP can stay efficient when Leonard is throwing his massive paws in Durant's face on every shot:
This is what constitutes a "good" look against this Spurs team:
There is no obvious fix here, unless Brooks and Popovich pulled a Freaky Friday without telling us. Ibaka's jump shooting will help space the floor, allowing clearer driving lanes for Westbrook and to a lesser extent Durant.
The Thunder have essentially tried replacing Ibaka with Nick Collison and changing nothing. Collison is a nice guy and good player, but San Antonio isn't going to respect him camping out for a corner three.
Again, Ibaka helps. The question is whether it's enough.
OK, Then, Tell Me If "It" Is Enough
To change the series' outcome? No. The Spurs are going to the NBA Finals. Healthy or not, Ibaka is not enough of a difference-maker to topple this streaking San Antonio squad. The surrounding talent on the Thunder isn't as good as in 2012, while the Spurs have superior depth almost everywhere.
Leonard, though he played only 16 minutes in Game 2, has been as impressive as he's ever been against Durant. There may never be a full "leap" into superstardom with Leonard the way many expected after last postseason, but he is relentless. Danny Green seems to have found his stroke after battling inconsistency all season, Tiago Splitter remains underappreciated, and Patty Mills is the irrationally confident friend we'd all love to have.
The Spurs are good, man.
In this small sample, where the Thunder are back home and could use the emotional boost, an Ibaka return can make all the difference. Oklahoma City is not as dreadful as the two-way mess it has been during this series. Durant and Westbrook are two of the seven or eight best players in the world. It's a testament to the Spurs that they've made most forget how amazing Westbrook and Durant were during the Clippers series.
There is a good reason the Thunder had so much success against San Antonio during the regular season. (Hint: It has something to do with them being very good at basketball.)
Look for the Thunder to temporarily trick people into thinking this will be a series Sunday. Before, of course, San Antonio presses the detonate button and finishes it off in five or six.
Score Prediction: Thunder 106, Spurs 101
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