Thanks in large part to the valiant comeback of Serge Ibaka, the Oklahoma City Thunder topped the San Antonio Spurs at home in Game 3, 106-97. Now, after falling into a 0-2 hole with back-to-back blowout road losses, OKC has a chance to knot the series at two games apiece in Game 4.
Ibaka was, without question, the difference-maker on Sunday. He made his presence felt early and often, finishing the first quarter with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting to accompany three rebounds. He wound up playing 30 minutes—something that reportedly wouldn’t be possible until next season—notching 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.
The offensive spark he provided in the opening minutes was huge in terms of spreading the floor on offense, boosting team morale and getting the crowd riled up. His defensive impact, however, was truly what turned the tide in OKC’s favor.
Throughout the first two games of this series, San Antonio had no qualms about penetrating into the paint and finishing around the rim. Ibaka was able to take that away with four swats and his usual imposing presence.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich knew he’d return to action, but his team didn’t show up ready to play when that happened. Pop is arguably the best in the business at making adjustments on the fly, though. Chances are his experienced roster won’t shoot below 40 percent from the field again.
Seeds: Oklahoma City Thunder No. 2; San Antonio Spurs No. 1
Series: Spurs lead 2-1
Schedule for Series: Game 4 Tuesday, May 27, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5 Thursday, May 29, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 6* Saturday, May 31, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 7* Monday, June 2, 9 p.m. ET (TNT)
* = If necessary
Key Storyline for Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s impressive enough that Ibaka managed to rehabilitate his calf injury in time to return during the Western Conference Finals. The fact that he performed so well and essentially led his team to victory is downright remarkable.
The 24-year-old drained spot-up jumpers, snatched down boards and swatted four shot attempts.
He repeatedly thwarted drives to the basket; especially those from Spurs point guard Tony Parker—as shown in the following video courtesy of The Oklahoman’s Anthony Slater:
The Frenchman was frustrated into a 4-of-13 shooting performance. He scored just nine points and had as many assists as he had turnovers (four).
OKC managed to bring San Antonio’s field-goal percentage in the paint down nearly 20 points—from 67 percent in Games 1 and 2 to just 48 percent during Game 3.
If Ibaka continues to play at this high of a level despite the injury, Oklahoma City has to feel pretty good about its chances of tying the series.
Riding the momentum of Ibaka’s comeback and the enthusiasm of the home crowd gives them an advantage that seemed impossible mere days ago. The Spurs are going to make adjustments, and they certainly won’t shoot as poorly as they did in Game 3.
The Thunder need to build off Sunday’s success to account for that.
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
After two thoroughly dominant performances on its home court, San Antonio looked shockingly mediocre. It shot a woeful 39.6 percent and seemed rattled by Ibaka’s stellar play. Manu Ginobili was one of the few Spurs players who continued torching OKC’s defense—draining 6-of-9 three-point attempts—but the shooting guard admitted his team let its guard down.
“Maybe we thought we were OK or we’re going to win here playing so-so, but it’s not going to happen,” he said, per the San Antonio Express-News’ Dan McCarney. “They showed us the reality, and hopefully we play much better in Game 4.”
Aside from the Argentinean’s great showing, San Antonio’s offensive prowess disappeared. Although OKC’s defense deserves credit, the Spurs were still getting good looks.
As ESPN TrueHoop’s Matthew Tynan points out, the Spurs put up 42 uncontested shots and cashed just 14 of them (33.3 percent).
Some of those “uncontested” looks were a product of Parker getting stifled on drives, then pulling up for short jumpers. Still, it’s rather bizarre that San Antonio missed so many open looks.
Oddly, this has been OKC’s modus operandi for a while on the defensive end.
NBA.com’s John Schuhmann wrote the following of their defensive anomaly in February, citing SportVU:
They have defended the rim well. They rank fifth in opponent field-goal percentage in the restricted area, with Serge Ibaka ranking among the top individual rim protectors. That’s obviously important.
But, by itself, it doesn’t account for how high the Thunder rank in opponent EFG% (effective field-goal percentage). Not only do they not contest jumpers very well, but they don’t really force bad shots. About 61 percent of their opponents’ shots have come from the restricted area or 3-point range, the seventh highest rate in the league.
Schumann also explained that Thunder opponents were shooting 38.7 percent on uncontested jumpers. At the time of writing, that was the sixth-lowest rate in the Association.
Even though Ibaka is sure to take away plenty of easy looks at the bucket, the Spurs have to understand that they’re going to get open looks against OKC’s D. They have to make those count.
Now that we’ve seen what Ibaka is capable of despite not being at 100 percent from a health standpoint, it’s fair to say he’s OKC’s biggest X-factor.
He’s a gigantic reason why the Thunder were able to pull out a much-needed win. He’ll rarely score more than 20 points as the team’s third option, but his elite defense and ability to contribute double-digit scoring games is what makes Oklahoma City a title contender.
As for San Antonio, the defensive capabilities of Tiago Splitter will be integral in spoiling another surge from Serge. The Brazilian played just 18 minutes in Game 3 as Popovich decided to try for an offensive spark from Boris Diaw (that didn’t work, as the big man finished 3-of-10 from the floor).
After regressing during the regular season, Splitter has been huge during postseason play. If he can ensure that Ibaka doesn’t get out to another hot start, San Antonio will control the flow of Game 4.
Key Matchup: Tony Parker vs. OKC’s Defense
Parker looked completely out of sorts when trying to drive to the basket against Ibaka.
At the mere sight of his hulking physical frame, Parker would abort the mission of finishing at the rim either by dribbling the ball back out, or dishing the ball off to teammates (often times just to reset the offense).
How the All-Star point guard adjusts to Oklahoma City’s revamped defensive unit will be huge moving forward. If he can’t find a way to be effective, the Spurs’ offense will become stagnant.
Parker doesn’t necessarily have to pour in 20 or more points. But, at the very least, he needs to limit turnovers.
Seeing Ibaka perform as well as he did in Game 3 was shocking. He went from “walking and doing light basketball drills,” according to general manager Sam Presti (per USA Today’s Sam Amick), to dominating a playoff game.
If he continues to perform on both ends, OKC has to feel as if it can pull of a 2-0 series comeback—a la the 2012 Western Conference Finals against San Antonio.
That’s especially true when you consider that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook each shot just 42.1 percent from the field. If one or both of those superstars scores at a more efficient clip, the Spurs will be in trouble.
Of course, San Antonio has to feel good about its own chances of bouncing back. The Spurs missed a plethora of good looks, Parker played terribly, the game was closely contested until the fourth quarter and they still only lost by nine points.
Each team has reason to feel confident moving forward, but home-court advantage may ultimately be the trump card once again. Expect another close game.
Prediction: Thunder beat Spurs 109-108