By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
After the Spurs walloped the Thunder in Games 1 and 2, NBA fans all over were preparing for what seemed to be an inevitable Miami-San Antonio rematch of last year’s NBA Finals. One thing fans didn’t count on, however, was the Oklahoma City medical staff apparently getting licensed at the same place as Dr. Nick, and confusing Serge Ibaka’s calf injury as season-ending, rather than something that would keep him out for less than 10 days. The return of Ibaka, combined with Russell Westbrook’s ability to almost literally transform himself into a force of nature (similar to Twister from Twisted Metal), has completely turned this series around as the two teams head back to San Antonio tied 2-2.
Across the two games in Oklahoma City, Ibaka averaged 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in over 32 minutes per game, but even those solid stats don’t tell the whole story of what the big man brings to the table. Having Ibaka down in the paint allows Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder perimeter players to gamble for steals, as he’ll be there to help erase any mistakes. His teammates can also stick more closely to shooters along the perimeter because the Spurs are more hesitant to drive with the presence of #9 around the basket. Danny Green is not shooting 7-10 from three in a game Ibaka is on the court. The raw numbers support these observations; after scoring 66 and 54 points in the paint in games 1 and 2, San Antonio dropped just 40 and 36 there in Oklahoma City. In game 4, the Spurs went just 3-14 (21.4%) on shots Ibaka defended at the rim.
Courtesy of NBA.com, we’re able to re-watch each of Ibaka’s blocks from Game 4. That first play perfectly encapsulates what Ibaka brings to the table for Oklahoma City. The Spurs had jumped out to an 8-0 lead and looked poised to break the game wide open. Tiago Splitter freezes Kendrick Perkins with a head fake and has what looks like an easy hook shot for two points, but Splitter doesn’t account for Ibaka’s ability to rise up from the weak side and meet the shot at its apex almost instantaneously. As if that defensive play wasn’t enough, Ibaka then beats the Spurs big men down the court to finish in transition off a feed from Durant. A 10-0 deficit is now 8-2 instead, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Ibaka. Nick Collison and Steven Adams have their moments, but neither of them is capable of affecting the game on both ends the way Ibaka did during that sequence.
Now, that’s not to say I think the Spurs are finished. All Oklahoma City did was hold serve at home in a series in which San Antonio still has home-court advantage. I’m sure Pop has some tricks up his sleeve and the Spurs will almost certainly do a better job moving the ball than they did in Game 4. One thing is for sure though, with a healthy Ibaka there to support Durant and Westbrook, fans will be treated to an exciting conclusion to these Western Conference Finals.