The Thunder Are The Thunder Again, And This Is A Brand New Series

I suppose we can go ahead and forget about the first two games of the Western Conference finals, which saw the Serge Ibaka-less Thunder getting swallowed whole by the Spurs while Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant did their best to fight off the inevitable. We can forget those two games because Serge Ibaka is back, Scott Brooks has grown a spine, and the Thunder look like a brand new team.

The miraculous performance that the not-but-should-be hobbled Ibaka put on in Game 3 was proven to not be a mirage, as he continued to be a destructive, game-altering defensive force in Game 4. The Spurs shot 17-for-39 in the paint last night, and were just 3-of-14 on shots at the rim defended by Serge Ibaka. The Spurs got whatever they wanted in the paint throughout the first two games of this series, but Ibaka's return has completely shut down their interior offense. He's like a walking distortion field, turning the Spurs' finely tuned orchestra of an offense into a garble of static whenever he's on the court.

Ibaka isn't the only person who has helped turn around the Thunder's fortunes, though. Some credit has to be given to Brooks, who in the last two games has decided to rivet Thabo Sefalosha and Nick Collison to the bench while setting loose a much younger and more dynamic group of players in Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Steven Adams. In Games 3 and 4, Lamb, Jackson, and Adams have combined to score 42 points; Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefalosha combined to score nine points in the first two games of the series.

(Of course, it's Ibaka's return that makes it at all possible for Brooks to retool his lineup in such a way—it doesn't really matter who else is out there on the defensive end long as Ibaka is around to wreck shit at the rim—but Brooks still had to pull the trigger.)

And then there's Westbrook and Durant, who played about as perfect a game as they are capable of last night. Westbrook threw up a 40-10-5 on 24 shots, and every gamble he took seemed to pay off with a layup that dropped in from an impossible angle or a steal (he had five of them) that led to easy transition points. As for Durant, he finished with 31 points on 11-of-22 shooting and spent most of the game in God Mode. You could say that Durant and Westbrook hit the Spurs like a tidal wave, but that would imply that there was a foreseeable end to their rampage. Waves eventually crest, but Russ and KD just kept rising, drowning the Spurs until Gregg Popovich couldn't do anything but yank his starters off the floor with over five minutes left to play in the third quarter.

All of this is to say that, yes, it appears that we finally have a damn series on our hands, and thank God for that. The ledger is now even at 2-2, and the Spurs get to go back home and try to figure out a way to keep their artfully crafted machine from getting smashed to bits by a bunch of hammer-wielding kids on a sugar high. This is the matchup we all wanted to see when this series began, and with any luck, we'll get to see it play out for three more games.