The San Antonio Spurs claimed Games 1 and 2 convincingly, and they entertained hopes of ending the series as they hit the road to visit the Oklahoma City Thunder. But a funny thing happened on the short trip north: OKC starting power forward Serge Ibaka got resurrected after the team had declared him out for the remainder of the playoffs on May 16.
With Ibaka back on the floor bringing both a paint presence at the rim and a scoring threat from the mid-range, the Thunder looked like a completely different team in winning Games 3 and 4. A 120-74 shellacking in the paint without Ibaka produced two losses. With him on court for the next two games, OKC won both paint scoring and the final score each time.
The home team has held serve in every game so far, and the Spurs host Thursday's Game 5 as favorites, but even that veteran squad has to be stinging from two demoralizing defeats against Kevin Durant—who is a "professional scorer", according to TNT announcer Reggie Miller—and a Thunder team that swept the season series.
|Odds for Thunder vs. Spurs Game 5|
(Odds taken from Oddsshark.com at 11 a.m. ET on May 28)
When: Game 5, Thursday, May 29, 9 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas
|Western Conference Finals Results|
|1||May 19||Spurs||122-105||San Antonio|
|2||May 21||Spurs||112-77||San Antonio|
|3||May 25||Thunder||106-97||Oklahoma City|
|4||May 27||Thunder||105-92||Oklahoma City|
Ibaka's presence in the paint not only disrupted the Spurs' scoring near the rim, but it gave his entire team more defensive leeway against the older, slower Spurs. Russell Westbrook brought his characteristic zeal to the perimeter on both offense and defense, vexing San Antonio for 40 points, 10 assists and five steals in Game 4.
In fact, the contest grew so lopsided that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled his starters off the floor midway through the third quarter and kept them on the bench. Westbrook finished with more points, dimes, steals and free throws than all five Spurs starters combined.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Michael Jordan is the only other player to notch 40 points, 10 dimes and five steals in a playoff game.
Perhaps the biggest difference for San Antonio has been Tony Parker. In the two wins, he totaled 36 points and 17 assists on 55 percent shooting. In the two losses, he recorded 23 points and eight assists on 44 percent shooting.
Ibaka's shot-blocking presence certainly helped limit Parker's opportunities on the drive, but San Antonio's signature ball movement also declined significantly after "Iblocka" returned. The Spurs had 55 assists in Games 1 and 2, but only 39 in Games 3 and 4.
The glass-half-empty contingent will eagerly hearken back to 2012 when the Spurs led OKC 2-0 before James Harden and Co. stormed back to win four straight and earn a trip to the NBA Finals.
As Parker told the Associated Press after the Game 4 defeat, "Each game is different. Each series. Each year. We worked hard all year to have home-court advantage, and now, it's our job to protect home court."
Don't call it deja vu. 2014 remains completely different from 2012 for both teams. A week ago, the Spurs were playing better basketball than any NBA team; now, another ignominious stumble stares them in the face as they seek to avenge last year's Game 6 loss in the NBA Finals.
Another aspect lost in the fray of Game 4 hinges on the ankle of backup OKC point guard Reggie Jackson. He rolled the joint and returned to the bench with it heavily taped. If he is limited, that could severely hamper the Thunder's depth and bench scoring, especially considering that Westbrook played 45 minutes during the Game 4 rout.
Considering that the Spurs have only one home loss so far this postseason, the veteran squad should like their chances in Game 5. Vegas puts them as favorites, and rightly so, but the stoic Spurs now stand on the razor's edge, and any misstep could spell doom.
The Spurs lost three games in a row only once all season during a late-January swoon against three playoff teams: at the Miami Heat, at the Houston Rockets and home to the Chicago Bulls. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green all missed those games due to injury.
A third consecutive playoff loss seems highly unlikely for San Antonio, especially with Game 5 at home. The series looks destined for a Game 7 back in Texas, and it would be foolhardy to count the Spurs out after a couple of defeats. However, Parker needs to find a way to kick-start the offense, and the defense must contain either Durant or Westbrook to stand a chance.