If there’s a game that’s going to decide this series, it’s game 3. The San Antonio Spurs have the Oklahoma City Thunder on the edge of a cliff, and now it remains to be seen if they follow through with the shove, or watch a team that’s 0-2 down but getting back Serge Ibaka after what seemed to be a playoff-ending injury has what it takes to get back into this series.
All the talk over the weekend has been over the “miraculous” recovery of Serge Ibaka from a calf injury that initially was suppose to take him out for the entire playoffs. However, as it has been done before, the tells the Thunder told weren’t completely true. The Spurs weren’t exactly buying it as well, but it doesn’t mean that they didn’t enjoy his absence through the first two games of the series.
Assuming Ibaka is healthy, it’s going to be quite a shift in the series. The difference between the Congolese-Spanish center playing and not against the Spurs is huge. He has 148 minutes logged against San Antonio this season, with the Thunder’s defensive efficiency being at 93, and the point differential being a +29. Without him playing, the Thunder’s defensive rating drops to 122.6 and their point differential is at -44. The Thunder have depth, but no one who can replace possibly the best shot blocker in the NBA.
Right now everything is kept on the hush hush. Ibaka isn’t sure he’ll play, the Thunder aren’t sure he’ll play; it’s all up to the doctors. The Spurs are preparing to see him lining up next to Kendrick Perkins, preparing for the worst. They’ve got enough things going for them to focus just on this one thing, as big of a change as it might be for this series. If they play as well as they did in the first two games and especially the third, when it looked like the Thunder broke, Ibaka alone isn’t going to be enough to stop the tsunami.
The Spurs have been able to do a great job of making Kevin Durant work a lot harder for his points. He keeps getting the ball far away from the basket which leads him to bad shots and exhaustion of trying to go by Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green each time. It doesn’t stop him completely, but affects how effective he is substantially. Russell Westbrook has good days and bad days but mostly plays the same. It’s up to the role players to make the difference most of the time.
The Spurs won the first two games of their series with the Thunder in 2012 before losing four consecutive games, although that was a different Thunder team in terms of the offensive talent, with James Harden coming off the bench. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are better players or at least one of them is, but the Spurs are probably a better team than they were two years ago.
Ibaka or not, the individual effort from the Thunder and certain lineups Scott Brooks has been using have been a complete disaster. One might consider Ibaka playing but limited minutes, which means still Perkins-Collison team ups or other small-ball lineups that completely exploded in the Thunder’s face. They’re putting all their faith on an injured player to turn the series around. They’re probably going to need more than that to stop the Spurs from reaching the NBA finals.