Sometimes, the more things change, they definitely don't stay the same. The Oklahoma City Thunder welcomed power forward Serge Ibaka back Sunday night against the San Antonio Spurs, and we officially have a new series on our hands.
The Thunder took Game 3 by a final score of 106-97, blowing the fourth quarter wide open in its opening moments.
Ibaka didn't just do his part. He gave the Spurs plenty to think about, if not something to seriously worry about. For a team that still controls the series with a 2-1 lead and home-court advantage, San Antonio suddenly looks like it's on the ropes. Ibaka seemingly changed the trajectory of the series in one fell swoop.
The big man's overstated injury and rapid recovery have been well-documented. How he'll hold up going forward remains slightly less certain, but the Spurs have to be prepared for more of the same.
The first casualty of this war is point guard Tony Parker.
He was dreadful in Game 3, making just 4-of-13 field-goal attempts and turning the ball over three-consecutive times in the second quarter. The fleet-footed 32-year-old was rendered almost entirely ineffective in the painted area, robbing him of his bread-and-butter scoring and putting a serious crimp in San Antonio's offense.
When Parker isn't a threat around the basket, it also means he struggles to drive-and-kick to open shooters. That's part of the reason swingmen Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard struggled from long range. Parker typically collapses the defense and creates some pretty good looks for them.
Only this time, the defense wasn't collapsing. Oklahoma City could stay glued to shooters, because it knew it had one heck of an insurance policy protecting the rim.
Parker's struggles inside were symptomatic of a broader pattern. The Spurs usually get more than their fair share of easy looks on the interior thanks to their strong ball movement. They weren't getting those looks on Sunday.
Even Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had to give Ibaka his due after the game.
Manu Ginobili—who led the Spurs with 23 points—was also impressed.
Ibaka deserves much of the credit, but not all. Rookie Steven Adams also tallied four blocks. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had one apiece. The Thunder were collectively more aggressive and quicker to the ball. They displayed more effort from the outset, eventually out-rebounding the Spurs by a 52-36 margin.
More than any tangible contribution, Ibaka's biggest impact may have been a psychological one. This looked like a different Thunder team.
The Spurs looked like a different team, too—just not in a good way. After the game, Popovich told reporters, via Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News, "I was very disappointed we didn’t come out with a more foot-on-the-neck attitude. That’s not the way you approach it."
Nevertheless, this is no time for overreaction.
The Spurs took a shot to the gut—there's no doubt about that. But they still have manifold reasons to be hopeful.
In many respects, they were their own worst enemy in Game 3. The lack of energy had more to do with complacency than it did Ibaka. Popovich told media after the game, "I thought our defense in the first half was the poorest we've played all year."
It was probably pretty close.
San Antonio gave up 57 first-half points. The Spurs failed to close out on Westbrook at the end of the quarter, giving up a couple of momentum-killing three-pointers that kept OKC in front. At one point late in the period, Kawhi Leonard gave Durant an inch too much space beyond the arc and paid dearly for it.
The Spurs were guilty of the same mental lapses that had typified OKC in Games 1 and 2. Those little things—the defense, the turnovers, the rebounds—they all had more to do with this loss than did Serge Ibaka.
And for a team that places a premium on not fouling, sending OKC to the line 31 times is unacceptable.
Simply put, that means San Antonio controls its fate. It didn't show up with anywhere near the energy and discipline that were displayed in Games 1 and 2.
But what about that painted area?
The Spurs will make adjustments and find ways to pry Ibaka a little farther from the rim. And they'll rely on the things that got them this far, namely unselfish ball movement.
Ibaka can't be everywhere at once, and the Spurs will find ways to get their looks. The bigger threat to San Antonio's offense may be the fact that the rest of the Thunder were playing better defense, too. Durant and Westbrook's long arms were active Sunday night, disrupting passing lanes and closing out on shooters.
The Spurs will have to rely more on their in-between games. Expect to see more pull-up jumpers from the likes of Parker and Leonard, both capable mid-range shooters. We might even get an extended Patty Mills sighting thanks to the backup point guard's quick release from all over the floor.
This isn't the first time San Antonio has faced defensive intensity. It dealt with it early and often in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks. The key will be regaining some offensive composure. Shots were rushed in Game 3, passes were forced.
The usually composed Spurs started to come apart at the seams, perhaps thrown off just a tad by the onslaught of good vibes surrounding Ibaka's return in OKC. As The Associated Press' Cliff Brunt notes, "The crowd roared when Ibaka's name was announced during pregame introductions, and it got even louder when he started playing. He had eight points, three rebounds and two blocks in just over six minutes of play in the first quarter."
A tone was set early on, and it wasn't especially conducive to San Antonio's momentum.
The normally efficient Leonard was just 4-of-11 from the field. Boris Diaw missed seven of his 10 field-goal attempts, including some pretty good looks from long range. And after getting off to a good start, Danny Green lost his rhythm, too, ultimately converting just 3-of-12 shots.
Those shooting performances had very little to do with points in the paint, and they had very little to do with Serge Ibaka.
The Spurs will have to match Oklahoma City's inspired defense with better offense. But for a team that scored 122 and 112 points in Games 1 and 2, respectively, that hardly seems like an impossible task.
While the dominant narrative coming out of Game 3 will be points in the paint and Ibaka himself, Popovich's focus on his defense is telling. If the Spurs hold Oklahoma City to the 77 points the Thunder scored in Game 2, San Antonio wins Game 3 by 20.
Popovich knows defense wins championships. And it can win Game 4, too.