In the first half of the first quarter of his first game back from a calf injury, Serge Ibaka rose up and tossed away a Tim Duncan short hook.
But the ball went right back to the Spurs, who swung it around the perimeter and found Danny Green with an open lane to the hoop. Green drove into the teeth of OKC’s defense, spotted Ibaka closing and errantly flung a moonshot finger roll that clanged off the backboard and the side rim.
Statement made. Ibaka was officially back, doing what he’s paid to do: Block shots, alter others, patrol the paint and shield the rim.
And with its defensive anchor back in the fold, the Thunder was able to unleash its scariest and most overlooked team-wide skill — interior basket protection.
In sports, offense typically garners the most attention. With the Thunder’s personnel, that’s particularly true.
Russell Westbrook is a whirlwind attacker and a nightmare to plan against. Kevin Durant is as silky as they’ve ever come, a near 7-footer blessed with a dead-eye jumper and the handle of a shooting guard. But on those rainy offensive days — when Westbrook is out of control or Durant is struggling to find his rhythm — this team’s fallback has always been its underrated defense.
And that is fueled by a back line that acts like a brick wall.
Ibaka is the best shot-blocker in the league. But the Thunder’s roster is filled with other capable goaltenders who are unafraid to challenge at the rim.
In these playoffs, Ibaka’s 36 blocks are the most in the league. DeAndre Jordan’s 33 rank second. Entering Wednesday, Thunder rookie reserve Steven Adams was tied with Pacers starting center Roy Hibbert for third with 24, an amazing number considering the disparity in court time.
Per 48 minutes, Adams is averaging 3.85 blocks this postseason, more than Jordan (3.58), Ibaka (3.42), Hibbert (2.44) or anyone else that’s played substantial time.
Adams had five in one game in the Memphis series. He had seven against the Clippers. He had four in 28 minutes against the Spurs on Sunday night, victimizing Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
“It's something I just kind of picked up now,” Adams said. “I'm big, so that helps with the tall guys, but in terms of timing, yeah, it's gotten a lot better. … I picked it up off Serge.”
And that’s a scary thought for opposing teams. Ibaka is 24, and the improving Adams is only 20, making this front line of the future a problem for potential penetrators in the present.
And the duo has help. Kevin Durant has 21 blocks this postseason, sixth most in the NBA, and Russell Westbrook has chipped in six, second most at his position behind John Wall. As a team, the Thunder has been first or second in the league in blocks per game each of the past five seasons.
Against the Spurs, this has been a huge and well-documented key. In the past two games, the Thunder has 18 blocks and countless alters. Ibaka’s return has coincided with San Antonio’s struggles, with Parker and his Spurs teammates finding it tougher to finish in the paint and harder to dribble and shoot on the perimeter.