HOUSTON — Talent aside, the most sizable advantage the Thunder had entering this series with the Houston Rockets was its size.
Yet in three of the five games, Oklahoma City has been outworked and outclassed from in close.
It's become a startling reality for the defending Western Conference champion and top-seeded Thunder, and one that now has Houston a win shy of tying this series and wrestling away complete command of this matchup.
Oklahoma City enters Friday night's Game 6 at a crossroad. After two straight losses, it's become clear that the Thunder's big lineup is neither able to defend the Rockets on the perimeter nor punish them in the paint. The small unit, meanwhile, has struggled at times to score while also being plagued by defensive lapses.
There is one player, though, who has what it takes to turn the tide.
In the first three games of this series Ibaka was sensational. The power forward averaged 15.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots. He shot 61.3 percent from the field. The Thunder won all three of those games.
But in the last two contests, Ibaka has regressed. He's averaged 11 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots while shooting 45 percent from the field.
Ibaka's inability to take advantage of a Rockets lineup that often lives with shooting guard James Harden defending him in the post has been most detrimental. It's a matchup the Thunder, at least on paper, should be able to exploit.
“Serge is a lot bigger than me and stronger than me,” Harden said. “But I just have to play him aggressive.”
Harden continued, confessing in the next breath that it's a matchup the Rockets actually prefer.
“If the ball is in his hands that means Kevin (Durant) doesn't have the ball,” Harden said. “So we're going to live with that all series, him trying to make plays and post me up.”
Each time Ibaka fails the Rockets have no reason to not continue focusing all their defensive attention on Durant. But each time Ibaka succeeds, the Rockets will have no choice but to counter by inserting an additional big man or doubling down, which would free up shooters and driving lanes for Durant and others.
It's a chess match, and the Rockets currently have the Thunder in check.
The question now is how can things change?
Ibaka is not a post-up player. It's not his strength, and the Thunder has wisely resisted the temptation of force-feeding Ibaka on the low block. Despite showing tremendous strides in his offensive game, Ibaka still struggles to catch the ball cleanly and is still snake-bitten by turnovers. His passing skills out of the post, meanwhile, are lacking, which prevents him from really making defenses pay.
Where Ibaka works best in the offense is as a mid-range shooter, as evidenced by 55 percent of his field-goal attempts during the regular season coming on jump shots.
Additionally, 75 percent of Ibaka's field goals in the regular season were assisted, illustrating how rare it is that he creates his own shot. Utah center Al Jefferson, by comparison, was assisted on 55 percent of his field goals this season.
Most troubling is Ibaka's main assist man is on crutches. Russell Westbrook was responsible for 50 percent of Ibaka's assisted field goals. With that source of offense no longer available, the Thunder must figure out how Ibaka can get going so that he still can put pressure on the Rockets defense.
In some ways, it's up to Ibaka.
Ibaka's athleticism, energy and hustle can lead to offensive rebounds and put-back opportunities from the paint. Those just happened to be two areas the Thunder currently are losing in this series. Houston has out-rebounded OKC 10.8 to 9.8 on average on the offensive end while outscoring the Thunder 43.2-36.4 in second-chance points. Oklahoma City has a narrow edge in second-chance points, currently winning 77-73.
But perhaps Game 5 revealed a breakthrough.
The Thunder began running Ibaka in pick-and-rolls with Reggie Jackson. It led to two fourth-quarter dunks and left the Rockets re-evaluating.
Suddenly, no longer could Houston simple deny Durant at all cost. The Rockets also couldn't leave Derek Fisher in the corner to help.
If the Thunder can continue to carry out that set, it could turn into a pivotal pick-your-poison equation for the Rockets — one that slowly should help the Thunder regain its most sizable advantage.
“There's parts of our offense I'd like to continue to focus on, and that's a play that can help us get to the paint and create opportunities for points around the basket,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I think Serge and Reggie is a good combination. They've had some good chemistry the last couple of weeks with that.”