Game 4 preview: Tony Parker’s chance to change the narrative
Not only did Game 3 mark the return of Serge Ibaka, but it also brought about the feeling of desperation in Oklahoma City. A loss would’ve meant curtains for the Thunder, one of the NBA’s elite teams with two of the league’s very best players. Instead, they rode the wave of adrenaline created by the return of their star rim-protector past a San Antonio team that appeared just happy to be in the building at times.
At the end of Sunday night’s contest, a 2-1 series count meant Oklahoma City was still alive, and a pretty convincing win served as a reminder of what Ibaka’s presence means on the floor, both for the Thunder and in the face of the Spurs.
In the mean time, San Antonio’s effort was less than ideal. We saw one of the worst performances of Tony Parker’s playoff career, a frigid shooting night from anyone not named Manu Ginobili, horrendously clumsy passes and some of the worst defense Gregg Popovich said he’d ever seen. The Thunder experienced something of a resurgence, but the Spurs didn’t do much to combat the uprising against them.
One can only assume a better performance from Pop’s guys, otherwise, it’s back to San Antonio all tied at two games apiece.
The Spurs need to get better efforts from their role-player backbone. When Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter show up, San Antonio is nearly impossible to beat. But it’s obviously going to be difficult. Leonard is saddled with the responsibility of defending Kevin Durant all night, Green’s got to chase Russell Westbrook around and find ways to get open on the offensive end, and Tiago has to deal with all that Oklahoma City size while also worrying about Ibaka’s location on the court. In the conference finals, everything is difficult.
We know Green’s offensive limitations when shooters stick to his hip, and we understand the fact Splitter struggles on the offensive end against athleticism, but that means they must take advantage of the opportunities they get. At this stage, it’s all about making the most out of what little you’re given.
But this is more about Kawhi. He’s the only one big enough and athletic enough to combat the Thunder’s physicality. He’s got to attack the paint and make good decisions with the ball, and I’d imagine the Spurs want to put him in position to do so. If Leonard starts to collapse the defense, things are only going to get easier for everyone else. He did it on the brink of elimination during last year’s Finals, so let’s see if he can provide that spark again.
Points in the paint
After what happened in Games 1 and 2, the natural tendency here is to continue to focus on the totals. Without Ibaka, the Spurs were like cruise missiles directed at the rim; in his return, those lanes to the basket were cut off and shots at the rim turned away. Move away from that. This is Ibaka’s specialty. It’s highly unlikely they’ll score half their points from in close with the big man patrolling the key. But this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be attacking. In fact, they have to be relentless in doing so.
Ibaka’s presence affords Thunder defenders the luxury of playing ultra-aggressive defense on their men. If the Spur they’re guarding goes by them, oh well. Serge is there. San Antonio must still find a way to suck those guys into the paint and find open shooters, and when those guys receive the passes, they’ve got to hit them.
Somebody make a damn shot
Manu was 6-of-9 from the 3-point line in Game 3, outside of that it looked like the Spurs were launching medicine balls. Danny Green hit two early threes, but after that, the non-Ginobili Spurs went 2-of-15 from deep. When you are playing against Oklahoma City and its Congolese human windmill, you HAVE to hit threes when you’re open, otherwise you’ve got no shot.
Boris Diaw was open all night. Kawhi Leonard had several really good looks. Patty Mills found some space to fire away at times. They never made the Thunder pay, however. Here’s the thing: Ibaka is not 100 percent, and he’s admitted as much. He’s going to expend most of his energy defending the rim on the defensive end, so the other elements of his game (like the ability to close on shooters and extend out into the mid-range area) are going to be hindered. San Antonio has to put him in pick-and-rolls all night, no matter how daunting that task may seem. And when guys like Diaw and Duncan are used as Parker or Ginobili’s pick-and-pop partners, they’ve got to hit the shot.
I know it sounds like a broken record, but sometimes basketball is that simple. This offense creates a ton of good looks at the basket, all you’ve got to do is knock them down.
(Man, basketball sounds easy. *Shoots crumpled up piece of paper toward wastebasket, hits girlfriend’s cat* Oh.)
Defense *clap clap* Defense *clap clap* Defense *clap clap*
Jumping back to what I mentioned a bit earlier: Popovich called his team’s first-half defensive effort the worst he’d seen all year. I mean, hyperbole and all, but who am I to question? Still, it was really bad through two quarters. I understand leaving Ibaka open early, given he supposedly hadn’t gone through a full practice prior to his return, but he kept killing them out of pick-and-pop situations. San Antonio has to live with that shot to a degree, because it’s difficult for its bigs to stretch out that far while still dealing with Durant and Westbrook at the rim. But someone’s got to make Ibaka think. Whether it’s a perimeter player sliding down and over to help or just a big man closing out harder, at least make him see you.
On the whole, counting the second half, the Spurs played some decent initial defense, though.They allowed just .93 points per possession, which is really good, and gave up only .68 points per possession to the ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll. You take those kind of numbers and run all day long, unless that means giving up offensive rebounds.
This is where a lot of the effort-related junk comes into play. When you’ve got Derek f*cking Fisher with a patch on his head looking like an old man that just had a weird growth removed snagging offensive rebounds with three Spurs around him, you might as well pack it in. San Antonio gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the second half (15 for the game), and it felt like every last bit of energy they actually brought with them to the arena was being wasted.
And that was the biggest takeaway from Game 3 when you hear quotes from the Spurs’ locker room. The intensity wasn’t there, for whatever reason. They weren’t as desperate, their situation wasn’t as dire and their matters weren’t as urgent. And hey, they were up 2-0, and the human brain doesn’t necessarily process these circumstances as emergencies.
But Game 4 is a different story. If the Spurs go back to San Antonio tied, things will start to tighten up a bit. I’m not saying this team wouldn’t be able to react accordingly, but it would certainly complicate things. The less confidence you give these Thunder, the better.
A win would swing this series’ momentum back to the Spurs in a big way, but at the very least you want to see a competitive response to the effort they showed on Sunday. Especially from Parker.
San Antonio’s best player was a no-show in Game 3, and because of it was forced to answer questions about Ibaka all night long. Here’s his chance to change the narrative.