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