Here are five observations from the Thunder’s much-needed 106-97 win over San Antonio on Sunday night:
1. Serge’s banner night – Despite five seasons of steady growth, balanced and improved end-to-end play, spectacular defensive games and consistently productive offensive nights, Serge Ibaka has floated in the background nationally. Even locally, despite being nearly as important, he has never been as revered as Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. But that all changed on Sunday night. Or, more accurately, the transformation began during the first two games in San Antonio, when the Spurs blew out OKC and Ibaka’s void was so blatantly obvious. But it culminated in three special hours on Sunday in The Peake, starting with the eruption he received in pregame introductions, continuing with his legendary first quarter — where he nailed four straight shots and blocked two others in the first five minutes — and reaching its apex when he checked out with a few minutes to go, enticing a standing ovation from the adoring home crowd and leading to an avalanche of oncoming praise for his gutsy, inspiring performance. Playing alongside the spectacular Kevin Durant and the polarizing Russell Westbrook, it’s tough to find even a shred of the crowded spotlight. But on Sunday, Serge Ibaka finally had his night. And because of it, he altered the projection of this series and captured the attention and admiration of basketball fans worldwide.
2. Film room: Serge effect - Even a hobbled and far less than 100 percent Serge Ibaka provides the type of rim protection the Spurs didn’t see back in San Antonio. In the first two games, they had 120 points in the paint. On Sunday, only 40. Let’s take a quick film room look at why Ibaka’s presence was so game-changing:
-A couple times per game, at least, Ibaka turns two points for the other team into a defensive stop for the Thunder. It’s a direct scoreboard contribution that doesn’t go in his point total, but is just as important as any of his silky mid-range J’s. Here are two examples:
-With two blocks in the first five minutes, a gimpy Ibaka quickly reestablished himself as a feared rim protector. And for the rest of the night — and now series – the Spurs had to remain aware of him. And if you’re constantly worried about a looming presence, your ability to drive and finish is hindered. That’s what happened to the Spurs on Sunday. TNT’s Kenny Smith had a great breakdown of this at halftime. Check out the first play, with Ibaka on the floor, where Danny Green is forced to fire up an errant floater:
-Then check the next play, without Ibaka, when Manu Ginobili is able to slide into the lane and drop one in off the glass:
-Perhaps nobody was more vocal in their skepticism that Serge Ibaka would actually miss this entire series than Tony Parker. And perhaps nobody on the planet is angrier that he ended up being right. In some ways, Ibaka is Parker’s layup kryptonite. He’s a fleet-footed big man who can adeptly cover the pick-and-roll, recover to Parker’s passing options and sky for a blocked shot, even on some of Parker’s sneakier moves. Bad calf and all, take a look at the block on this play:
-Too often, Ibaka is referred to simply as an athletic leaper. Not enough credit is given to his overall basketball IQ and ability to cover pick-and-rolls, understand coverages and stick with point guards. Check out these next few plays, starting with this first one, where Ibaka deters Parker twice in one play, forcing a back out and then eventually a travel:
-This next play is some great team-wide defense by the Thunder. But, once again, it starts with Ibaka. He snuffs out a pair of Parker drives on opposite sides of the floor, forcing some extra passing, which eventually leads to a contested Danny Green airball:
-This last play is just a quick example of his rim presence. Parker drives the lane and rises up for a would be layup. But as he ascends, Ibaka is there to meet him, forcing Parker to alter plans and fire a pass to the corner. The simple things:
-Parker finished 4-of-13 from the field with only nine points and four assists.
3. Lineup change - With Serge Ibaka returning, it would have been easy for Scott Brooks to stay pat and go with his comfortable, traditional starting five. But to his credit, the much-maligned Thunder coach gave into some desperation, sensing a need for some offensive life and surprisingly started Reggie Jackson over Thabo Sefolosha at the shooting guard position. Good move that worked out great. Reggie had 15 points and five assists, played solid defense on Danny Green (3-of-12 shooting) and Sefolosha and Nick Collison didn’t play a minute, allowing for extended run for the stars and more time for the athletic youngsters. Some would argue that he has waited too long to make lineup and rotational adjustments in these playoffs. And that could be true. But unlike year’s past, he’s shown a willingness to eventually make them and an ability to go unconventional. Progress. And maybe just in time.
4. Reggie for good? - Quick tangent away from this riveting series: I’m fascinated as to who will start at the shooting guard position next season. It seems as if Reggie Jackson will stay in that spot to finish out this postseason run. And he'd be an intriguing option to stick in that spot as camp opens up next year, giving the Thunder another playmaker and giving Jackson more incentive to stick around and sign a new contract. But from a long-term perspective, the Thunder might see him as a better fit running the second-unit while they get a more traditional 2-guard (Jeremy Lamb, maybe, or someone in the draft) for the starting slot. It’ll be interesting to follow, but in the mean time, check out the Thunder’s top five in minutes played on Sunday and salivate over the possibilities of this potential starting lineup beginning next season. Talk about athleticism:
1. Reggie Jackson: 37 minutes
2. Kevin Durant: 36 minutes
3. Russell Westbrook: 36 minutes
4. Serge Ibaka: 30 minutes
5. Steven Adams: 28 minutes
5. Vines of the game
-The night and career of Russell Westbrook summed up in one play:
-Just a couple of UConn grads catching up on old times:
Up next: Game 4 on Tuesday night in OKC. Tip at 8 p.m.