Now this is more like it. When the Thunder announced they'd lost Serge Ibaka for the remainder of the playoffs to a calf injury, it seemed like we'd all miss out on another classic clash of age vs. youth, savvy vs. athleticism, creative offense vs. "dribble around, then someone shoot!" Ibaka's return performance in last night's Thunder victory means we just might have a series on our hands.
Ibaka is such a crucial component of what the Thunder do because of how he affects the game offensively and defensively. While Scott Brooks isn't much for actual offensive play-calling, the Thunder's scoring philosophy is reliant on spacing.
KD and Russ are deadly on the drive and with the midrange jumper, but they need the threat of both for it all to work. Without Ibaka's steady 17-foot jumper punishing any Spurs bigs who camp out near the lane, the interior openings Durant and Westbrook need to wedge themselves through disappear. Instead, OKC's two stars have to crash into the Spurs' front court like waves against a cliff or rely on jump shots, while defenders crowd all up in their grill, confident that the help defense will take care of any blow-bys. It looks awesome when this triage-offense works, but it's not a recipe for sustained success.
Thankfully for the Thunder, Ibaka's jumper was hitting last night. He received the game's two biggest cheers, the first when he opened the night with his patented midrange J, the second when he closed with a little over three minutes left in the 4th, slowly walking to the bench, pointing to the rafters. Serge went 6-for-7 from the floor, scoring 15 points. More importantly he cleared space for Durant and Westbrook to drop in 51 combined points on 38 shots.
Even in their losses, OKC could score on San Antonio. The Thunder's biggest problem was dealing with the five-headed monster that is the Spurs' offense, no matter who's on the floor. To paraphrase TNT's Kenny Smith, who summed up Ibaka's presence best, Serge turns layups into floaters, floaters into jump shots, and jump shots into threes by forcing shooters back five feet from where they'd like to shoot.
Ibaka didn't look at all hobbled with his gimpy calf. As the highlight video above shows, his legs were as springy as ever, launching him to 4 blocks and allowing him to contest shots from under the rim, on the perimeter and everywhere in between. The only thing saving the game from devolving into a first-half laugher was Manu Ginobili's long range shooting that got him 20 points before halftime. In a series where the Spurs had shot 54 percent in the previous two games, they ended last night shooting under 40.
Maybe it's all too late for OKC. Maybe they needed to split the first pair in San Antonio. Maybe Ibaka can't sustain this performance every other night while dealing with his leg and we'll go back to the blowouts of Games 1 and 2. But maybe there are more similarities between this Western Conference Finals and that of 2012 than just the matchup. If the Thunder manage to rattle off four straight wins as they did back then, we will definitely point to Ibaka's reemergence as the hinge.