Serge Ibaka is garnering all the attention as the star of Game 3 against San Antonio, and rightfully so.
What he did playing through a calf injury was legendary, a moment that won’t soon be forgotten.
But the truth is Ibaka’s valiant and inspiring return isn’t the only thing that turned around the Thunder’s defense and saved Oklahoma City’s season.
Russell Westbrook’s effort was every bit as pivotal.
Westbrook supplied one of his best defensive performances of the season in the Thunder’s nine-point win. He pestered Spurs guard Tony Parker from start to finish and stood as a primary factor in OKC’s ability to finally slow down a Spurs offense that had toyed with the Thunder in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals.
Parker scored just nine points on 4-for-13 shooting. He had four assists against four turnovers in 28 minutes.
He also had a shoulder full of blame for his team squandering the momentum it had built in the first two games of this series.
“I take a lot of responsibility,” Parker said Monday. “That’s my job on this team, to get everything going. That’s why I took it hard (Sunday) night, because I felt like I didn’t play well.
“I have to play better and I know it. I’ll try to bounce back.”
After shooting 53.8 percent in the first two games of the series, San Antonio was held to 39.6 percent shooting in Game 3. It’s no coincidence that the Spurs struggles’ coincided with Parker’s. In the first two games, Parker was in complete control. He scored 14 points, making 6 of 12 shots, with 12 assists in Game 1. The Thunder then switched defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha onto Parker at the start of Game 2. Parker still scored 22 points on 10-for-17 shooting while adding five assists in only 28 minutes.
When the Thunder went back to Westbrook on Sunday, he was ready.
“Russ did a great job setting the tone,” said Thunder guard Reggie Jackson. “I think he decided that he was going to lock in on defense for us and push the pace, push the tempo, and I think that’s what we did the majority of the night.”
By coming out focused defensively, Westbrook alleviated any potential defensive drop off that might have come when Jackson started in place of Sefolosha. Gone were Parker’s open looks off of ball screens, his unabated drives to the basket and his trouble-free passes to teammates.
“I mean, that’s their team,” Westbrook said of Parker. “If you control him you can kind of control the rest of everything that goes on. They obviously have good ball movement. But he’s in control. You try to control him. He’s definitely going to stay aggressive and try to score. But you can make his shots be tough.”
If Ibaka deserves credit for protecting the paint, Westbrook warrants praise for being responsible for ensuring that the Spurs had fewer opportunities to cross that threshold. His focus on the ball, in the pick and roll, on the weak side and in transition significantly reduced the Spurs’ shot opportunities from the painted area.
“He did a great job of just engaging and keeping his body on Tony or whoever was the ball-handler and doing a great job of getting over the screens,” said Thunder forward Caron Butler. “His second effort was great all throughout the night.”
The Spurs mustered only three fast break points after scoring 16 in Game 1 and 11 in Game 2.
“It’s something that we have to be good every game with against this team because it’s such a quick team up the court,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “After a make, after a miss, it doesn’t matter. They’re pushing the ball. They’re making that first pass quickly into their early offense. And so I thought Russell was good in picking up his man early and locking in. But he has the ability to do that, and does that and he did it at a high level (Sunday) night.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of Westbrook’s night was he never let his off night on offense negatively affect his defensive disposition. Westbrook started the game missing seven of his first eight shots and was just 3-for-10 from the field at halftime.
“Defense kind of kept my energy up,” Westbrook said. “I was locked in and locking in on whoever I was guarding at the time and trying to find a way to still help us stay in the game and win.”
For the Thunder to knot this series at two games apiece, it’ll need Westbrook to provide a repeat performance — especially with Parker determined to once again be the driving force for San Antonio.
“He’s the point guard so it definitely sets the tone,” said Kevin Durant. “But you’ve got to understand what he’s doing on both ends of the floor, the minutes he’s playing and how tough that is as one of the main guys to pressure the ball so high up all the time and also control the offense and be the aggressor. Most other point guards, they’re hiding on a weaker defender. But Russell takes the challenge and guards the best...It’s physically hard to do but he does it.”