SAN ANTONIO – As the San Antonio Spurs erupted for 39 points in the final quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday night, all Thunder forward Serge Ibaka could do was watch — because that's all he was allowed to do.
Leading 71-62 entering the final period, OKC imploded defensively and wound up losing 101-98 at the AT&T Center.
Ibaka, the NBA's leading shot-blocker and an All-Defensive first-team selection last week, never left the bench in the final period and sat for the final 16:01 of the contest.
For those questioning why this happened, the man responsible has also questioned why himself.
“I think every decision you make, if it doesn't work out, you say, ‘Why'd you do that?' and I'm right (there) with you on that,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said the morning after. “I wish I would have played Serge last night.”
A primary reason why the Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals with an 8-1 record was because Brooks had frequently pushed all the right buttons. He knew when to “go small” in the opening round against the Dallas Mavericks and again in the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Brooks does this by moving Kevin Durant from the shooting forward 3 position to the “stretch 4” forward spot. This forces opponents to go with a smaller 4 themselves to better defend Durant, arguably the toughest one-on-one matchup in the league.
“We've done it in the past and have had a lot of success, so you can't really look back and beat yourself up too much … but I will,” Brooks said. “It was nothing against what Serge did.”
The Thunder paid the price for going small, getting outscored 16-2 in the paint in the fourth period.
In retrospect, Brooks wishes he would have stuck with his normal substitution rotation and re-inserted Ibaka with eight minutes left and the scored tied at 73 after a 9-0 San Antonio run.
“I thought we would be able to close out the game,” Brooks said of having Durant play alongside Kendrick Perkins and three guards. “Hindsight, looking back now, I wish obviously I wouldn't have done that.”
Ibaka is playing slightly more minutes in the postseason (27.6 per game) than he did during the regular season (27.2), but he played just 21:41 in Game 1, finishing with five points, seven rebounds, two blocks, one steal and one assist.
Game 2 is Tuesday at 8 p.m. at AT&T Center.
“Going into the next game, I see him playing his normal minutes,” Brooks said.
Of course, there's no guarantee OKC would have won the game even with Ibaka on the court. There's a reason the Spurs are favored to win this year's NBA title, having won 19 straight, including 9-0 in the playoffs, and 30 of their 32 games.
“When you play against the Spurs,” Brooks said, “they have so many opportunities to play so many different lineups that you have to make decisions. Like any decision, if it doesn't work, you always like the other one better.”
Asked if he thought the rest of the WCF might feature small ball more frequently than he initially envisioned, Brooks said: “No. I think last night was, but I don't see that as the series move forward.”
If Ibaka was angry about Brooks' decision, he did a wonderful job hiding that emotion before Monday morning's light practice.
“It wasn't the first time, you know,” Ibaka said with a French accent and a shrug. “It was coach's decision.”
Did Ibaka look out at the court in the fourth quarter and envision himself protecting the middle?
“It's not really like that,” Ibaka said. “They (the Spurs) just played really good. It doesn't matter if it's me or Perk on the court, the way they were playing last night was just good, you know. We need to do a better job of stopping ball before ball get in the paint.”