Without question, Serge Ibaka's return to the Oklahoma City Thunder's starting lineup propelled them to a 106-97 victory in Game 3. His effectiveness in controlling the paint on defense led to four blocked shots, and his ability to space the floor on offense with his mid-range shooting filled a key area of need for Oklahoma City.
Much of this can be quantified statistically, but Ibaka's real impact came from deterring penetration and shots at the rim in the first place. While he certainly provided his fair share of highlight-reel blocks, there were countless other plays in which opportunities at the rim turned into turnovers or fruitless kick-outs.
This is the true value of a great shot-blocker. The threat of a blocked shot is often more effective than the block itself; the resulting chaos from a block can lead to an easy basket for the offense out of the scramble. Drivers that are fearful of blocks, however, don't even attempt a shot at the rim.
Ibaka has the entire package in terms of rim protection: speed, agility, length, timing and size. He's also fearless, willing to challenge any player at the rim. It's this type of play that can really alter the mentality of an opponent. No one wants to be on the wrong end of a highlight.
In every game of this series, the Spurs have hammered the Thunder with continuous attacks of the basket. Without the presence of Ibaka in Games 1 and 2, San Antonio was able to finish in the restricted area. This caused Oklahoma City to overcompensate to protect the rim, and the three-point line subsequently opened up.
By the second half of each game, OKC never knew whether rim pressure was going to lead to an immediate finish or a shot from the outside. Its defense was completely out of sync.
In Game 3, San Antonio continued attacking. Despite the athleticism of its team, OKC is not particularly strong at preventing penetration. The difference had always been Ibaka and his ability to bail out his teammates, and that's all that changed with his return.
On this sideline-out-of-bounds play, the Spurs have Tony Parker pop to the top of the key after sliding between two screens from two of his bigs. Russell Westbrook, who's guarding Parker, naturally falls behind when the Frenchman catches the ball and turns the corner.
The result is Parker heading downhill toward the rim with a head of steam and Westbrook well out of position.
In Games 1 and 2, the Thunder had no answer for Parker penetrating. Once he broke through the initial perimeter defense, their bigs were unable to contain him, block his shots or prevent passes for three-pointers. The play was basically over with one minor advantage.
Here, we see Ibaka sliding down the lane with Parker as he dribbles at the basket. But then, all of a sudden, Parker slams on the brakes. What was once a seemingly wide-open lane toward the rim closes immediately thanks to Ibaka's lateral quickness. In Parker's estimation, it was not worth challenging him one-on-one.
Parker then pulls the ball out, resets and tries to isolate—not a part of the San Antonio offense in any capacity, let alone against Kevin Durant and his length. He eventually turns the ball over by traveling.
Did Ibaka directly make the stop on the play? No. But he prevented the primary scoring opportunity by blowing up the drawn-up action. That in turn forced Parker to create by himself.
While this isn't the worst option, it's certainly much less preferred to organized offense. San Antonio doesn't thrive with one-on-one play, and we can clearly see why here.
The other part of shot prevention at the rim is the subsequent forcing of an extra pass. When a ball-handler looks to shoot against Ibaka, he often finds himself midair and caught in no-man's land. With Ibaka closing in and the probability of a good shot in decline, he'll improvise with an extra pass.
Yet the clogged nature of paint play means close-quarters passing becomes inaccurate or deflected. It's also difficult for many bigs to corral such high-velocity passes without much reaction time, and turnovers are commonplace.
But it all starts with a shot-blocker deterring that first layup. Here, Boris Diaw actually backdoors Ibaka on a give-and-go. It appears that Ibaka is beat, and we can actually see Diaw begin his motion for a layup.
At the last second, Ibaka closes the gap to block the shot. Diaw is clearly bothered by the pressure and alters his decision to shoot midair. Instead, he tries a one-handed wraparound pass, which is low and too far left for Tiago Splitter to handle. The result is a turnover.
Again, Ibaka will never get statistical credit for this play. Yet it's his work that causes it, and OKC is able to capitalize by grabbing the loose ball.
The other part of Ibaka's defense that dramatically improved Oklahoma City was his pick-and-roll coverage. The Thunder like to force mid-range jumpers by giving the ball-handler lots of space, and the resulting coverages mean the defensive big drops back to cover the basket.
But with Ibaka, they're able to kill two birds with one stone. While he's disciplined in his willingness to drop back, he's also explosive and long enough to bother shots should the ball-handler pull up.
Here, we can see Ibaka giving Marco Belinelli plenty of space as he comes off a Splitter pick.
Being the deadly shooter that he is, Belinelli chooses to pull up. He just doesn't anticipate Ibaka lurching out at him immediately, and once again we see a quick change of decision midair. As with Diaw, Belinelli throws it away.
There's no question San Antonio will adjust in Game 4 to find more shooters. Throughout the regular season, the Spurs struggled scoring at the basket due to Ibaka. In Game 3, we saw more of the same.
But offense cannot live and die by the jump shot. San Antonio's best hope is that the jumpers start falling early, which can then force Ibaka to stray farther from the basket. The Thunder can counter, however, by shifting Durant over to the power forward position—and Ibaka to center—which would keep Ibaka in the paint under most circumstances.
The other option is to simply attack Ibaka in the post. He's not a great one-on-one post defender, and Tim Duncan can easily take advantage.
Whatever San Antonio does choose, it will be tough. It's never easy to play offense against a great shot-blocker, and Ibaka showed why in Game 3.