Why Serge Ibaka's Return Will Save Oklahoma City Thunder's Season

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Why Serge Ibaka's Return Will Save Oklahoma City Thunder's Season
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder's demeanor changed the second Serge Ibaka made his unexpected return, but the big man has provided far more tangible benefits to his championship-starved squad.

In this business, it pays to be bigger, stronger and faster. And it's hard to find many deeper collections of physical tools than the 24-year-old possesses.

With no apparent residual effects left from the calf injury that initially was thought to have ended his season, Ibaka was back at his disruptive best Tuesday night. So, too, were the long, athletic Thunder, who seemed to age the San Antonio Spurs by the second.

The Thunder knotted up the Western Conference Finals at two games apiece with a worse-than-it-sounds 105-92 Game 4 win. Ibaka's series debut Sunday lit an emotional fuse. Two nights later, it was all about physical dominance.

"We just play well with Serge," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, via Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press. "We can do things with Serge in the lineup that we can't do with other guys."

That's awfully high praise—and still selling the big man short.

With Ibaka on the floor, OKC does things to San Antonio no one else can.

Gregg Popovich's time-tested program stalls, overwhelmed by the flurry of activity around it. A system that functions like clockwork becomes undone by self-doubt and second-guessing. Good shots are still turned down for potentially great ones from point-blank range, but there's a hesitance that even great looks won't be good enough against this defense.

The Spurs opened Tuesday on an 8-0 run, with a pair of Kawhi Leonard triples sandwiched around a layup by Tony Parker. On San Antonio's next offensive possession, Ibaka swatted away a hook shot by Tiago Splitter.

Intimidation seemed to set in almost immediately, but the Spurs fought against it. They tried to flash their fearlessness through aggressive drives at the basket. It was a curious move, to say the least, against one of the NBA's premier rim protectors, as Popovich told reporters after the game:

All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench, so they'd know who Serge was. But really unwise all of a sudden.

Instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots. We had seven turnovers in the first half, but really 14 because of the seven blocks; those are all like turnovers.

Live-ball turnovers are back-breakers against the quick-strike Thunder. OKC's offense can bog itself down in the half court, but out in transition, this group boasts a potent mix of explosiveness and creativity.

Ibaka isn't the team's engine. That title belongs to MVP Kevin Durant. Ibaka isn't the accelerator, either. Russell "Full Throttle" Westbrook owns that label.

No, Ibaka is the one waving the green flag. He's sending down the signal that it's OK to start running.

He's an insurance plan for this defense, emboldening his teammates through his rim protection. OKC's perimeter players can cling tighter to shooters, cheat further into passing lanes and press harder on ball-handlers knowing that Ibaka has their back.

The results of that renewed confidence have been staggering.

After being outscored in fast-break points 27-24 over the first two games of the series, the Thunder have sprinted to a 33-3 edge in the last two outings. OKC has nearly doubled its number of steals over that stretch (19 since Ibaka's return, 10 before he came back) and tripled its blocks (18, up from six).

USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, the Thunder took the Spurs' bread-and-butter (the pick-and-roll game) and made it a strength of their own.

San Antonio's pick-and-roll ball-handlers coughed it up on 21.1 percent of those plays in Game 4, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Spurs' roll men turned it over on 12.5 percent of those plays. During the regular season, those turnover rates were just 14.6 and 7.3, respectively.

San Antonio had a slightly more efficient offense than Oklahoma City during the regular season (108.2 offensive rating to 108.1) and played at nearly an identical pace (97.07 possessions per 48 minutes compared to 97.91), via NBA.com.

Yet, the Thunder have been playing at a gear the Spurs seem incapable of matching these past two games. OKC has flown around the court. San Antonio has seemed stuck in the mud.

"If we let them push us around and are not strong with the ball, that's when they get us on our heels and we stop attacking the way we do," Manu Ginobili said, via Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. "We were again slower. It looked like we were a different speed, like we were in slow motion and they were going fast and strong."

The Spurs head back to San Antonio with home-court advantage still in hand, but they face some serious questions about their ability to survive against a full-strength Thunder defense.

Game 3 was supposed to be OKC's emotional lift. Game 4 was supposed to be when Pop devised a plan to shred this defense as it had in the first two outings. That never happened. The Spurs offense looked even worse.

The Ibaka Effect on San Antonio's Offense
Games 1 and 2 Games 3 and 4
PPG 117.0 94.5
FG% 53.8 39.7
3P% 45.0 35.8
TS% 62.7 49.5
AST 27.5 19.5
TOV 11.0 14.5
Off Rtg 123.4 95.6

NBA.com

"It's no longer just about the inspirational presence of Serge Ibaka in the Thunder lineup," NBA.com's Fran Blinebury wrote. "It's about the entire energetic, athletic, run-til-the-cows-come-home Thunder lineup. And a Spurs lineup that, just as it did two years ago, suddenly looks like the morning after."

With OKC's offense clicking at full fireball levels, San Antonio is left scouring for easy offensive opportunities. Those chances simply haven't existed since Ibaka's return.

None of this is new. The Spurs have had an Ibaka problem for years:

They also now have a major incendiary-Thunder-offense problem on their hands.

Ibaka hasn't lit the scoreboard on fire these two games (12.0 points), but he's someone the Spurs defenders have to respect.

With attention thrown Ibaka's way, that has freed up Westbrook and Durant to ignite. KD averaged 21.5 points in the two games Ibaka missed, and he's since tallied 28.0 with Ibaka back in the mix. Westbrook played the part of one-man wrecking ball Tuesday night (40 points on 12-of-24 shooting, 10 assists), joining some historical company in the process.

The Thunder's combination of size, speed and skill has flapped the historically unflappable:

OKC still needs to bring its best effort twice over a three-game span to escape from this series. But the Thunder have a top speed that doesn't even appear on the Spurs' speedometer.

With Ibaka back anchoring this high-powered relay team, OKC's season that seemed lost just days ago now looks to be on the brink of salvation.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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