Watching the Spurs shred the Thunder the first two games with things going from bad to worse, it seemed obvious Oklahoma City’s problems were a lot bigger than just the absence of Serge Ibaka.
The offense was a mess, the defense was messier and the whole tone and feel of the team was completely off. Not to mention the killing machine that is the Spurs, who were vicious in exposing every weakness and soft spot the Thunder have.
But sometimes, it really is that simple. Sometimes, it really is that straightforward. The Thunder just needed Serge Ibaka.
Now, Game 3 had a lot more layers to it than that. Kevin Durant found his ruthless rhythm, attacking the paint with more regularity. Russell Westbrook shook off a 1-of-8 start to hit his last 7-of-11 shots en route to 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Scott Brooks made a bold, but necessary move of starting Reggie Jackson at shooting guard, sitting Thabo Sefolosha for a DNP-CD. And Steven Adams continued his rampage with seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks in 28 minutes.
But it was always about Ibaka. The raw emotion, the energy, the intensity — the Thunder were whole again. They were themselves. They had their monster in the middle back and they fed off him the entire game. The first play the Thunder ran was a high pick-and-pop to Ibaka, and he smoothly dropped it. When he erased a Tony Parker layup attempt a few minutes later, it was obvious things were different now.
“I was so emotional, but you couldn’t really tell because I was on the court,” Ibaka said. “I will never stop thanking [my teammates] for tonight. I will never forget it.”
A few different times, Ibaka came up limping, most noticeably after wiping out an easy two points from Danny Green. He landed hard, popped up and hobbled his way up the court. He looked over at his bench, and signaled a thumbs up. He wasn’t coming out. Pain was the obstacle for him, and he wasn’t letting it stop him.
“When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want your teammate to embody, a guy that gives himself up for the team,” Durant said. “No matter how this game would have went tonight, I gained so much respect for Serge for laying it all on the line for us, putting his body out there and sacrificing his health for the betterment of the team. I’m glad we won the basketball game, but no matter what would have happened tonight, that’s something you want to have beside you every single day.”
Ibaka finished with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocks. Those are just the raw numbers that don’t include the times Tony Parker penetrated the paint, saw Ibaka lurking and hopped his way out or kicked to the corner. And it definitely doesn’t include the lift his presence gave his teammates, allowing them to stop looking over their shoulders wondering where their safety net was.
“Words can’t describe it,” Caron Butler said. “In my career I have been part of a lot of great moments in basketball history. And that was a special one right there.”
What having Ibaka did was open the game for the Thunder. Defensively, they could attack the Spurs’ perimeter shooters and not fear every pick-and-roll that let Parker or Ginobili into the paint. The presence of Ibaka alone was enough to discourage Parker from trying the rim. And offensively, having him as a legit threat gave the Thunder that flow back. The screen-and-roll game was deadly, because the Spurs were worried about Ibaka’s knockdown ability from the elbows. So Durant and Westbrook had more freedom, as well as an option to kick to.
It took Ibaka just 11 minutes to outscore the other three starters from Games 1 and 2, and in total, the non-Westbrook/Durant starters put up 34 points on 13-21 shooting. Ibaka had four blocks; the Thunder had three in each game in the first two. The Spurs scored 40 paint points after averaging 60 in the first two games. The Spurs shot 50 percent in the restricted area after shooting 76.8 percent the first two. Stat by stat you go, Serge Ibaka owned this game, and he did it on one leg.
The Spurs kept it close for a while, mostly because Manu Ginobili was making everything. Gregg Popovich said postgame that was one of the worst defensive performances he’s seen from his team, and the Spurs bemoaned their inability to match the Thunder’s intensity. But in the end, the Thunder’s willpower was enough to overwhelm San Antonio, much like in Game 3 two years ago.
It’s easy to draw that parallel, but circumstances remain different. Game 4 then told the bigger story, and that’s the same situation the Thunder are in now. While winning Game 3 was absolute necessity and at least made this a series momentarily, it doesn’t mean much if the Spurs take a 3-1 lead back to San Antonio. The Thunder got right in Game 3, because they got their team back. But this is still an uphill climb for OKC. Though one they look a lot more capable of making now.
- Two years ago in Game 3, Thabo Sefolosha changed the series with his defense on Tony Parker. Tonight, he changed the series by not playing as Scott Brooks started Reggie Jackson.
- Jackson: 15 points, four rebounds and five assists.
- Ibaka: “First on my mind, I just want to thank God. If I am here tonight, it is because of Him. I want to just thank Him. I want to thank all the Thunder fans, I know they have been praying for me when I was hurt. I just want to thank them, and I want to thank my teammates. They gave me the confidence tonight to do what I came to do tonight.”
- Ibaka on how it felt to make his first shot: “I was so emotional, but you couldn’t really tell because I was on the court, but like I said earlier; I just want to thank my teammates, and thank Russ, he was trying to get me going early in the game, Kevin, Perk, Reggie; I will never stop thanking them for tonight. I will never forget it, it was very special tonight.”
- Brooks isn’t going to get a lot of credit for it, but it was a slick, subtle move to sit Durant with a few minutes left in the first half, which allowed Westbrook to have some time alone with the offense. Westbrook hit back-to-back 3s, with the second being a 40 footer right before the buzzer, and it clearly ignited him. Because previously, Westbrook was completely out of control, taking horrible shots and making terrible decisions.
- So many people kept yelling that the Thunder’s problems were bigger than Ibaka. Amazing what playing with your best players does.
- OKC now 11-2 against the Spurs over the past two-plus seasons with Ibaka in the lineup.
- Big turn in the third quarter was when the Thunder took 22 free throws, and the Spurs took zero.
- Jeremy Lamb played meaningful, solid minutes in the first half. He scored six points with three rebounds and played decent defense and put some pressure on the Spurs.
- That second quarter lineup was terrific: Westbrook, Jackson, Lamb, Durant and Ibaka. The Spurs didn’t have an answer. And the best part was, Brooks rode it. It was playing well together, and he just let them play.
- Steven Adams was just monstrous. I can’t tell you how excited I am to see how he develops. He’s so good already, but he has so, so far to go. It’s not that he’s going to become some 20-10 guy, but he alongside Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka, he’s a wrecking ball of physicality.
- Great moment postgame with Gregg Popovich when he was asked about Manu Ginobili’s health and said, “He’s fine. Or, he’s out for the playoffs.” After a little laughing, he said, “Make sure Sammy gets that one.”
- I can’t be sure, but it looked like Ginobili was wearing his game shoes postgame at the podium.
- Westbrook went for the punctuation dunk, and we could all see what was going to happen a mile away. He doinked it about 30 feet in the air, then got his rebound and scored anyway. Then laughed about it for like two minutes straight.
- For all the Spurs fans butthurt about the free throw differential, you just gonna ignore OKC’s 10 attempts in Game 2 or nah?
- Also, foul count: Spurs 20, Thunder 24.
- For all the good Scott Brooks did tonight, he did get a bit carried away with Derek Fisher in the second half. Why not go back to Lamb?
- Nick Collison, from starting to a DNP-CD.
- The Thunder crushed the Spurs on the boards, 52-36.
- Ten blocks for OKC tonight. They had six total the first two games.
- Ibaka’s net rating was a +27.0.
- With Ibaka on the floor, the Spurs scored 98.7 points per 100.
- Maybe the worst thing an official can do is bait a player into a technical foul. Westbrook lost his head in the first quarter going for a wild steal on Ginobili, but after he was called for a foul, Scott Foster stood over him with a literal look of “say something.” Foster was begging Westbrook to do something so he could T him up. Ridiculous officiating.
- Ibaka said he feels like he should be fine for Game 4, but does expect some soreness. “Yes, let’s see how I wake up tomorrow. My doctor just told me he expects I would know tomorrow, and he explained to me how I will feel a little bit sore tomorrow morning. So let’s see how I am going to wake up tomorrow … It is a little bit possible to get worse, but not a lot, not a lot. That is why I was able to go tonight, because they said it is just a little bit.”
- Apologies on the lateness of the recap, but I’ve got some other duties that are kind of slowing things down a bit. Appreciate the patience.
Next up: Game 4 on Tuesday