SAN ANTONIO — The Thunder are riding the wave of momentum in San Antonio for a pivotal Game 5. Serge Ibaka is back, and so are the Thunder. They vaporized the Spurs in the last two games, flexing their muscles and showing off the raw power of their athleticism.
But now it’s back to the place where they lost two games by a combined 52 points. Ibaka wasn’t there, no, but neither were the Thunder.
“We know what we have to do,” Durant said at practice on Wednesday. “We know that we can’t go in there and play like we played before, which was too cool, and playing it too cool gets you beat every time, so we have to be engaged and be ready for a dog fight. That’s how it’s going to be from the beginning, so we’re excited for a great opportunity.”
The Thunder obviously walked into San Antonio and did the deed in 2012, finding ways to execute in an incredible fourth quarter. There’s an assumption that history is simply repeating, but things were different then. And while I think the Thunder are better, so are the Spurs.
There’s been a lot of discussion as to if Ibaka really has made that much difference, and while on the surface, you can’t blame a 35-point loss on his absence alone, the Thunder are clearly better with him. It’s not that his rim protection has changed the series by itself — though the numbers don’t lie — it’s more about how the team defensive structure has been corrected.
We all focus so heavily on offense, and how Westbrook’s injury last season threw the Thunder completely off. Defense is the same way. The Thunder have played a certain way, pressuring the ball and aggressively attacking pick-and-rolls, with the knowledge that Ibaka could protect behind them. It’s not that Ibaka is single-handily shutting down the Spurs in the paint; it’s that the Thunder can play better defense as a team with him back there. Westbrook is better on the ball, Durant is better on the weakside and so on. Plus, make a mistake and get beat, there’s a chance Ibaka might bail you out.
The Thunder have to expect a battle in Game 5. The two wins in OKC were impressive, but the Spurs are great at home. Their role players are better in their own building, so shutting down Danny Green, Patty Mills and company could be difficult. Like Durant said, it’s going to be a dog fight.