SAN ANTONIO – The terror ended Thursday night for the Spurs. Turns out Sergezilla can be slain.
Gregg Popovich emerged from his laboratory, coached up his ballplayers and drew Serge Ibaka away from the basket. Which made Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals just like Games 1 and 2. A San Antonio rout, this one 117-89 at AT&T Center. For the Thunder, Ibaka out of the paint isn’t as bleak as Ibaka out of the picture, but it’s not far from it.
Gone is the momentum from Ibaka’s unlikely return in this series to swat shots and scare the Spurs. Back is the doubt of what the Thunder can do on defense, after getting torched by the Spurs and befuddled by Popovich’s adjustments.
The Spurs’ wizard started tall sharpshooter Matt Bonner in place of center Tiago Splitter, in hopes of making Ibaka float out to the 3-point line. Didn’t really work; the Thunder led 11-10 with 7:19 left in the first quarter when Bonner went to the bench. But Boris Diaw, another big man comfortable on the outside, came on and played most of the rest of the game that mattered.
And suddenly, the Thunder’s rim protection was elsewhere. The Spurs returned to their ways of dominating the paint, making 20 of 28 shots from the lane and kicking the ball to open 3-point shooters when the Thunder defense sucked in to help.
“In Oklahoma City, we struggled to finish at the rim. So we sent … Matt and Boris to the 3-point line,” said Spur star Manu Ginobili. “The fact that (Diaw) made the two that he took, it’s not six 3-pointers, but those two were significant because it makes the defense think about it.”
In two games in Oklahoma City, the Thunder blocked 18 shots, seven by Ibaka, and many more were altered. But Sergezilla is not as scary when he’s 20 feet from the basket. Ibaka managed to get two blocked shots Thursday night, but the Spurs had mostly open lanes to the basket.
“It was a good adjustment and it helped us to get to the rim a little more,” Ginobili said. “But again, going back to it, I’m pretty sure it’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about how hard we play, how strong we drove, how smart we play.”
Both coaches downplayed the adjustment. But Ginobili is a straight shooter – talking or launching shots. So when Scotty Brooks blamed the Thunder’s “defensive disposition” on the dramatic change from Games 3 and 4, he might as well have said defensive position. If Ibaka is chasing guys around the circle, the Spurs have a freedom not too dissimilar to how they felt in the first two games in San Antonio, when Ibaka was sidelined with a calf strain and the Spurs made 60 of 90 shots from the paint.
“Yeah, definitely helped,” said Tim Duncan. “Boris shot the ball really well, and just the threat of Matt being out there I think helped us to keep him (Ibaka) out of the lane a little bit and spread him out a little bit. It was a great move by Pop, a little adjustment there, and it obviously worked out.”
Duncan is an example. In two games in OKC, with Ibaka slapping San Antonio shots in every direction, Duncan had four shots blocked and made just 10 of 25 attempts. But in Game 5, Duncan made eight of 13 and scored 22 points. Helps when Ibaka has to sprint 15 feet, not just five feet, to get within range of bothering the Big Fundamental.
The Spurs played with the same crispness they displayed when Ibaka was missing. After Game 4, Popovich decried his team’s decision-making, saying it challenged Ibaka far too often instead of passing out to the open man. That changed in Game 5.
“We got off the ball,” Popovich said. “We didn’t have any ballstoppers. We hit open people and relied on team play more than we did in OKC. We just played harder. You know, you play with passion, you play with determination. It seems kind of a trite sort of notion, but sometimes players do and sometimes they don’t. They’re human beings, they’re not automatons.”
Brooks noticed. He called it “catch-and-drive” instead of “catch-and-hold.” And thus the Spurs proved they could beat Ibaka, against whom they had lost seven straight games and 12 of 14.
Now Brooks must counter Pop’s moves – play a small lineup more? – and the Thunder has to regain the attitude it showed in Oklahoma City. And keep it if and when the series comes back to San Antonio for a Game 7, when the Thunder will need Sergezilla in all his terror to win this series.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.