Spurs-Thunder Game 3: Where the Ibaka story was already written

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Sometimes narratives pre-write themselves, particularly under the microscope of attention that is the NBA Playoffs. Serge Ibaka’s miraculous return to the court roughly 10 days after the Thunder ruled him out for the rest of the postseason was enough material in itself to write the Monday morning headlines.

But then he played like the Serge.

Ibaka put up 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in Oklahoma City’s 106-97 Game 3 victory to reverse the tide in this series and remind us what his presence means on the court. Lanes to the basket that had previously burst open were slammed shut. Drop-shots at the rim were suddenly contested by arms swooping out of thin air. Pristine passes that found their marks through the first two games were errantly splitting the gap between teammates or harmlessly falling off fingertips into the waiting hands of Thunder defenders.

And those gaudy numbers the Spurs were putting up in the paint in Games 1 and 2 shriveled under the Ibaka effect. Heading into Game 3, San Antonio had averaged 60 points in the paint on 67 percent shooting, including nearly 78 percent inside the restricted area. On Monday, that number plummeted to 40 points on just 47.6 percent shooting. Where before any shot at the rim was essentially undeterred for any Spur who ventured close, Ibaka stepped in to turn them away.

Oklahoma City’s shot-swatter was the primary defender on 13 shots at the rim, per SportsVU data, and only six of them managed to find their mark. The Serge Protector was back, and his return brought out the Oklahoma City demons the Spurs thought they’d exorcised — the ones that seemingly found their way inside Tony Parker’s head.

San Antonio’s point guard was an absolute mess on Sunday night. His legs were dragging, his shot was a foot short, his tires had no traction, and at times he appeared to forget how to pass a basketball. The crafty Parker looked clumsy with Ibaka back on the floor, and the storylines will tell you that’s the reason.

Parker was being pressed about Ibaka in the post-game locker room.

“Overall, everybody played well. It’s not just him. They played well and we didn’t take care of the ball,” he said with a tinge of impatience after the third Ibaka-related question of the evening. “It starts with me, as a point guard I need to play better. I missed some easy stuff today. Like I said, bad turnovers in the second quarter and I just have to play better.”

This might be an understatement, as the Spurs’ lone All-Star was as bad as he’s ever been. His nine-point, 30.8-percent-shooting, four-assist, four-turnover stat line was his playoff-worst since dropping a nearly identical one a little more than 10 years ago, a day before his 22nd birthday. While there’s no question that Ibaka, a player Gregg Popovich called “the best defensive player in the league” on Monday, affects Parker’s ability to operate the way he prefers, Sunday’s performance was a bit of an aberration.

Parker averaged 20.5 points per game on nearly 47 percent shooting against the Thunder during the regular season, and that includes a 37-point outburst back in late January, his highest scoring output in a single game this year. Then again, he also had a six-point performance against OKC in the teams’ final regular-season matchup. Talk about some wild swings.

Still, Parker is right about one thing in particular: This wasn’t all about Ibaka. As a team, the Thunder played significantly better; and as a team, the Spurs collectively crapped the bed.

While the impact of Ibaka’s return certainly passed the eye test on both sides of the ball, a run through the numbers will tell you the outlying story. San Antonio had its chances but failed to take advantage. If you watched the game on television, you heard Popovich instructing his players through a TNT microphone on his lapel.

“Ibaka’s going to come (toward the rim). They’re going to come. Think about it. Guys are going to be open.”

And they were. The Spurs were able to find shooters off penetration when Ibaka and the Thunder collapsed, they just didn’t hit the shots. Per SportsVU data, the Spurs had 42 uncontested field-goal attempts in Game 3, a number that would be almost instant death against San Antonio in most situations. But they hit only 14 of them, allowing the Thunder to live and giving them more offensive opportunities after misses. This likely won’t happen again against the best shooting team in the NBA. The Spurs are OK with just 40 points in the paint, so long as the drive-and-kicks result in points from the perimeter.

It goes deeper. When Ibaka was on the floor Sunday, San Antonio managed to shoot just 40 percent, including just 50 percent at the rim. But the Spurs shot 40 percent from deep while he was on the floor as opposed to 33 percent while he was off, and when Ibaka was on the bench San Antonio shot 37 percent from the floor as a team. Beyond that, the Spurs had a better offensive-efficiency rating when Ibaka was on the floor (98.7) than when he wasn’t (87.8). Granted, both of those numbers are dreadful, but these stats show a combination of things: Not only were the Thunder better as a whole, but San Antonio was bad against the lineups they previously dominated in Games 1 and 2.

Oklahoma City will likely continue to play better as a team with Ibaka in tow in their own arena, but did the Thunder suddenly find a magic potion that thwarts the Spurs’ attack when their defensive anchor is off the floor? We knew their offense would also be better with Serge on the floor — they scored 125 points per 100 possessions while he was in the game — but how much of it was bad Spurs defense?

As for all those missed jumpers, they killed the Spurs on the defensive end, too. Popovich said his team played some of the worst defense he’d seen all season in that first half — it did improve after the break — and they weren’t doing themselves any favors by throwing bricks at the rim.

The Thunder boasted an effective field-goal percentage of nearly 59 percent off Spurs misses on Sunday, which is one of the elements that makes this team so dangerous. Any chance OKC has to grab the ball and run puts San Antonio at a serious athletic disadvantage, so it is imperative for the Spurs to hit open shots, not just in terms of scoring, but to allow their defense to set itself in the half court.

If not for Manu Ginobili, this game might have been a whole hell of a lot uglier than it already was. The Spurs’ sixth man seems to always have his best games when the team is struggling, and this was no exception. He went 8-of-13 from the floor and 6-of-9 from deep to lead San Antonio with 23 points (though only three of those came in the second half). He kept his team alive when it was on life support, but he needed more help.

Lethargy seemed to set in for San Antonio as the game moved along. And that will happen against the constant body punches from a team like OKC. The missed shots were hugely detrimental and the sub-par defense was a killer against the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka trio, but it was the little effort stuff that seemed to stick out most egregiously. The Thunder were beating the Spurs to almost every 50/50 ball in the second half, guys like Derek Fisher were coming away with offensive rebounds — OKC had 15 of those, 10 after halftime — and every time San Antonio locked down to get a stop, the initial effort was thrown away by a resulting lack of energy.

“Well, hopefully we realize that if we’re not intense, if we’re not very sharp and we (don’t) hustle like crazy, we’re not going to win here,” Manu said at the podium. “Maybe we thought that it was OK and we were going to win here playing so‑so. It’s not going to happen.

“They showed us the reality, and hopefully we react for Game 4 and we play a much better game.”

The reality is, the Thunder are infinitely better with Ibaka in the lineup, but the Spurs could’ve played a much better game themselves. Suddenly, the task of winning just two more games has become much more daunting, though it is doable, if not probable. San Antonio was just as bad as Ibaka was good in his return to the court, and despite all of its Game 3 shortcomings was still in position to win the game as the fourth quarter started. And it’s funny how little things can swing the momentum.

Patty Mills hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 10:45 remaining in the game, but it was called off because the official on the scene very questionably ruled that Mills stuck his leg out to draw a foul. (Mills does that almost every time he shoots — it’s his natural shooting motion — so we’ll just leave it at that.) That’s where the game changed for good, as a Durant runner and a Caron Butler “long-distance” 3-pointer made it a 14-point game only 34 seconds later. (I’m going to break that damn finger phone.)

It just goes to show how delicate the balance of a series like this can be, where the return of one hobbled player can make a difference this significant. But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t THE difference. For whatever reason — perhaps it was the atmosphere, the adrenaline boost of Ibaka’s return or just the gravity of the situation — the Spurs played one of their worst games in a while, something you wouldn’t expect will become a trend.

There are only about 30 hours between now and the tip-off of Game 4, so San Antonio will have a chance to put this one in the rearview rather quickly. Game 3 wasn’t pretty, but it was a lesson that served as a reminder to perhaps all of us.

This was never going to be easy, as we all expected a battle. With Ibaka back in action, we’ve got one.


  • Philip Fletcher

    Would like to see Kawhi attack the rim against Ibaka, get him to foul trouble.

  • Graham

    Curious to see how we could best do that. Maybe start Diaw and see if he can bait him into fouling in the post. Probably would just run back the same lineup and see if the team plays better tomorrow.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    The thing that disappointed me about the Spurs in Game 3 was the lack of fire they all alluded would be present. “Ibaka’s back? Bring him on! We don’t change what we do. We’ll be ready to go.” These were the sentiments coming out of the Spurs locker room when news broke that Ibaka would return. I thought the guys would be pissed and riled up about being lied to and mocked by the Thunder over Ibaka’s return. I also thought they were sick of hearing about how they won just because he was gone, instead of them playing excellent basketball. Spurs fans, and Pop for that matter, expected them to come out with a killer instinct, take the first punch that they knew was coming, and then “put their foot on their necks” like Pop expected.

    What did they do? Act like the mere sight of Ibaka was the second coming of Bill Russell/Dikembe Mutombo/Mark Eaton all rolled up into one. There was NO killer instinct, save for Ginobili. Everybody else was passive and sloppy. And the fact that it came after a four-day layoff (ostensibly a godsend for the older legs of the Spurs vets) made it even more inexcusable. You’d think that playoff veterans who know how dangerous it is to give a wounded team even a shred of hope would come out and go for the jugular. Instead, they acted like they were up 2-0 and could take a game off. I could see that attitude on a back-to-back or even a 48-hour turnaround, but FOUR DAYS (Wed-Sun) off? Incredibly disappointing.

    One of the national writers said Pop was overheard ripping these guys a new one in the postgame lockerroom. Serves em’ right. Tim and Tony know better. Pop shouldn’t have to do that anymore with Tim, Tony, and Manu being the veteran, championship winning, playoff battle-tested leaders they supposedly are. These are the games where we miss that tough, vocal veteran presence that various Spurs teams have had over the years (Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, etc. comes to mind).

    Lastly, Parker needs to figure out Ibaka once and for all. With all his experience, guile, craftiness, and skill, he should either be able to score at a decent clip or get him in foul trouble. Wasn’t it big guys like Ibaka that caused Parker to develop that deadly teardrop floater in the first place? Where is it?

  • SpurredOn

    MIght be the best, most accurate recap of last night’s game I’ve read or heard. They should have you on TNT or NBATV providing full picture perspective instead of pre-writen narratives.

  • xfg

    Lest we forget, Durant and Westbrook did not go on their monster games last night…. yet we lost.

  • chromao

    I am shocked that some comments here in El Conclusion and The Margin, taking about “Spurs in 5″ and “The Spurs don’t have to win next game”. Are these guys really watching this series? Do they know OKC, how they cause the Spurs serius matchup problems? We have two key players (Parker and Ginobili) on the brink of injury, one guy (Belinelli, regarded as a upgrade from Neal) really struggling to contribute. We have an OKC team playing the next game at home, with momentum, and a 2-2 series would really be troublesome to close .
    The injury to Ibaka (which surprised me when they announced that would sideline him for the rest of playoffs) was much more beneficial to the Spurs than an injury to Westbrook, since OKC is already used to play without Westbrook,Jackson is a fine point guard that always plays well against us, and Ibaka (unlike Aldridge in the Portland series and Nowitzki in the Dallas series) is not the first option in the OKC offense, which sometimes leads us to guard him a little complacently, leading to 11-11 and 6-7 shooting nights.
    Scottie Brooks may not be in the level of Pop and Doc Rivers, but he is not a bad coach. He made the adjustments in game 3 (benching Sefolosha and Collison for good) and in my humble opinion , unlike Pop, is fighting for his job, and will not shy away from playing KD 44 plus minutes , both Westbrook and Jacksoon 40 plus and Ibaka 35 plus, which would counterbalance our stronger bench. Lastly, the thing that most concern me is that we did not play particularly badly and OKC did not play a outstanding game. We were just not as agressive as them.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    You’re right about Bellinelli struggling mightily during the postseason. He was supposed to be a significant upgrade over Gary Neal, and he was – during the regular season. Bellinelli’s value was in helping get home court throughout while Pop rested guys all season and limited minutes. So as far as that was concerned, he did his job. The playoffs, however, have been a different story. Neal, as streaky as he was, seem to be able to dribble a little bit and get his shot up quickly even with defensive pressure nearby. And when he got hot, it was lights out. He just seemed to have bigger stones in clutch playoff moments. Nobody will ever forget Memphis in 2011, for example.

  • rj

    i would like to see splitter get a couple of post-up opportunities on ibaka to wear him out and get him in foul trouble. also, could we see some of matt bonner in this series to pull serge away from the basket?

  • Graham

    Diaw does what Matt Bonner used to, only with better defense and infinitely better offense beyond catch-and-shoot 3’s.

    If Diaw’s feeling it he definitely should get a good amount of minutes and force Ibaka away from the basket, or have to guard Tim in the post. If his shot’s off, Using Matt Bonner isn’t a terrible idea.

  • ferscia

    The Spurs should read this to prepare themselves for game 4. Well done.

  • GFoyle33

    This post is awesome, and completely consistent with my take on the officiating this series.

    So many commenters annoy me by saying something like, “I don’t believe in NBA conspiracy theories, but I’m sure the league wants ____.” And the commenter proceeds to fill in the blank with some reasonable-sounding conspiracy theory that he just previously denied the existence of, kind of like “I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I sure love it when she leaves me a few bucks.”

    I really don’t believe in NBA conspiracy theories. I think if there ever really were a message from the Commissioner to the refs for a game, regardless of whether it was overt or subtle, the integrity of the game would suffer a mortal blow that would take a decade or two to recover, if ever.

    However, I do believe that the power of the narrative, coupled with the game-time madhouse crowd atmosphere, can easily influence how refs call a game. Coming into the OKC series, the prevailing narratives commonly portrayed the Spurs as the implacable White Walkers, and I
    think this bled over into the mentality of the refs. In combination with Spurs’ aggression and Thunder timidity, the “unstoppable Spurs” narrative accounts for the slight free-throw & foul call discrepancies in favor of the Spurs for Games 1 and 2 in S.A.

    Then, in wondrous (suspicious?) fashion, St. Ibaka is resuscitated for OKC, and the surging narrative of the amazing shot blocker who the Spurs cannot figure out interposed its reality on
    Game 3. I don’t think the refs were consciously calling the game in favor of OKC, but I believe its weighty narrative seeped into the officiating mindset and resulted in some of the extreme discrepancies – 22 free throws to zero in the 3rd quarter! – that we saw. Unfortunately, the Spurs (with the exception of headgame-proof Manu Ginobili) also bought into the Ibaka miracle return movie-of-the-week, playing as if this narrative was a foregone conclusion, and competed like dog-poop for most of the game.

    Tonight, our beloved Joey Crawford if Ref #1, and despite his dubious history with the Spurs and Duncan, is at least fairly impervious to home-crowd influence. Hopefully, he’s equally resistant to the “It’s just like 2012 all over again!” narrative that threatena to infect these WCF. More important, though, is that the Spurs don’t buy into it, and they grab the narrative by its horns and stomp it into the ground, and reinstate the Spurs as the Championship-bound as the dominant
    story once again. That’s what I hope and expect tonight.

  • este

    Game 3 is an example of the risk you take when Parker is the focal point of the offense. He tends to have a couple of games in every post season especially late in series where he doesn’t show up. It seems he lacks the ability to adapt his game on the fly to whatever adjustments the opposition makes. Hopefully over the last 48 hrs. he’s had time to figure somethings out.

  • ferscia

    Because of your avatar pic, I take you are a Gene Wolfe fan. Wolfe is my 2nd fav. sci-fi writer (1st is Jack Vance). Nice to meet another Spurs fan with a love for quality sci-fi!

    BTW, do you like Willy Mason, Ryan Adams, Laura Marling music? :D

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