The return of Serge Ibaka has given the Oklahoma City Thunder much more than mere jolts of Willis Reed-ian adrenaline; it’s completely changed how the San Antonio Spurs operate—and not for the better.
Ibaka, though solid (nine points, eight rebounds and three blocks), was by no means spectacular Tuesday night. That was the sole province of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 71 points on a cool 23-of-46 from the field in fueling the Thunder’s series-tying 105-92 win.
Still, more than any other single factor, Ibaka’s presence has helped neutralize not just the Spurs offense, but the effectiveness of Tim Duncan—San Antonio’s legendary leader and linchpin—in particular.
If Duncan and Co. have any hope of regaining control of the series, those roles will have to be reversed.
In Games 1 and 2, the Spurs expertly exploited OKC’s lack of rim protection with predictable aplomb, marshaling a 52-point combined margin of victory and, more importantly, a pair of wins.
Since Ibaka’s surprising return, however, San Antonio has seemed reluctant to foray too far into the lanky forward’s rather sizable no-fly zone—and rightly so.
Asked after Game 2 whether OKC’s newfound momentum was the product of superior physicality, Duncan responded by citing Ibaka’s presence in particular:
They’re up in the passing lanes. They have Serge and their big guys back there protecting the rim. So they’re gambling a bit more, and they’ve turned that gambling into turnovers and turned those turnovers into fast break points. He’s given them a big boost in that area. So I don’t think it’s just physicality. I think they’re just more comfortable with Serge back there.
How big an impact the Spurs’ skittishness has had on the offense is difficult to quantify, although Game 4 wasn’t short on statistical hints:
Spurs are 12/30!!!!!!!! at the rim tonight.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 28, 2014
SAS also 3/17 on above the break 3s. 4/5 on corner 3s.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 28, 2014
Spurs first two games of the series, 66 and 54 points in the paint. Spurs last two games, 40 points and 36 points in the paint.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 28, 2014
Gregg Popovich knows this, of course: the spirit, if not the specifics, of his team’s rudderless offense.
One number Pop would be wise to heed, though, is four. As in the number of fouls whistled on Ibaka over his last 65 minutes—this for a player who averaged 2.9 per game during the regular season.
Which brings us back to San Antonio’s future first-ballot Hall of Famer. At 38 years old, Duncan cannot be counted on to carry an offense by himself. Still, his is exactly the kind of skill set—patient, deliberate, diabolically savvy—capable of exacting torturous tolls on a player like Ibaka.
Which team will win this series?
Even if it means using off-ball action to force a switch between Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, whom Scott Brooks often elects to sick on Duncan, the Spurs would be wise to figure out ways of forcing the former onto an island, even if it’s in spurts and stretches.
For Pop and the Spurs, the dilemma is as stark as it is simple: By focusing too much on getting Ibaka in foul trouble, San Antonio risks compromising its offense’s careful calibration—like driving a Maserati for an entire year strictly in third gear.
At the same time, Duncan’s role as Ibaka’s positional opposite is less important than the underlying thesis: Removing the Thunder’s best shot-blocker from the equation remains San Antonio’s best chance at an offensive resurgence.
Pop: "It’s got nothing to do with adjustments. It's about playing smarter and harder for more consistent minutes."— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) May 28, 2014
So much of basketball is about neutralizing the other team’s strengths. Unfortunately for San Antonio, OKC’s two biggest boons, Durant and Westbrook, are too good to hope for anything beyond them somehow beating themselves.
Which is why Ibaka poses perhaps the most imminently solvable puzzle for San Antonio—a player who, for all his undeniable talent, straddles so often the fine line between brilliance and overexuberance.
Playing Game 5 within the friendly confines of San Antonio’s AT&T Center—where the Spurs are 8-1 this postseason—will certainly aid the cause.
Parker summing everything up: "We worked hard all year to get home-court so it’s our job to protect home."— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) May 28, 2014
More than a recollection of recent history, anyway. For it was just two short years ago that these Thunder spotted these Spurs a quick 2-0 series lead. Four games later—all of them wins, one of which came on San Antonio’s home floor—OKC was on its way to the NBA Finals.
It’s impossible not to get that feeling now. The Thunder, after all, are older, wiser and better.
The Spurs? They have to be hoping the first two prove enough.
Is this series similar to 2012? Parker: "We should not think like that. Each game is different, each series, each year."— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) May 28, 2014
San Antonio’s chances of regaining control of the series shouldn't rest on Duncan’s shoulders alone. From Tony Parker’s stymied twists and spins to Danny Green’s poor perimeter decision-making, there’s plenty of blame to go around for the Spurs’ suddenly bog-bound offense.
But how they choose to use Duncan—particularly in the early going—could prove a telling bellwether for how the rest of the slate unfolds. Put Ibaka on his heels, and San Antonio could cleave open enough space to make the offensive row much easier to hoe.
Because if Ibaka is wont to bite on anything, it’s the patient devastation of the man they call the Big Fundamental.