Well, that was more like it. The Thunder routed the Spurs 106-97 Sunday night in Game 3, and the Thunder has more than a pulse in the Western Conference Finals. Much more. Here’s what I saw and heard.
Reggie Jackson started and played 36:56. Kevin Durant played 36:04. Russell Westbrook 36:03. Minutes played always is a good place to start in terms of value.
Now, through three quarters, Westbrook was at 30:50, Durant at 30:12 and Jackson at 27:43. Westbrook didn’t start the fourth quarter, which let Reggie catch up. Then Durant went out for good at 6:08 and the Thunder up 99-82. At 3:17, Westbrook and Reggie departed together. But still, Jackson’s value is apparent.
If Reggie can play solid defense, he’s the new starter, in this series and beyond. The Thunder can get in the market for another backup point guard (hey, Derek Fisher, want to stick around?) or for a different sixth man (Caron Butler? Jeremy Lamb?). But a backcourt of Russell/Reggie backcourt would keep opposing coaches awake the night before games. Maybe the two nights before games.
“Usually, if you are a bench player, it’s hard to play 30-plus minutes, because you usually miss the first six minutes of every half,” said the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, among the candidates for the best sixth man in NBA history. “So that’s what (Scotty) Brooks tried to do, just bring more scoring ability to the starting lineup, and I guess it worked. He did well.”
SERGE & RESCUE
OK, so I took the headline off our Monday sports section. Sue me.
Anyway, Serge Ibaka was great. Which didn’t surprise me at all. What surprised me was Ibaka’s health.
If Ibaka is able to play – able to run and jump and do whatever Ibaka does – he’s going to produce. Ibaka does not have bad games. He’s wonderfully consistent. There can’t be five more consistent players in the NBA.
He tries to block every opponents’ shot from pregame shootaround to garbage time. He peels off a screen and gets somewhere in the key and shoots an 18-foot jumper with the ball about nine feet off the ground. He rebounds well (but could be better; probably will be better in the future). He defends the post well (but could be better; probably will be better in the future). He drives to the hoop when an out-of-position defender comes at him with urgency, and Serge is decent on the move.
That’s what he does. Night after night. There’s no deviation in his play.
Game 3 was another typical Ibaka night: 15 points, 6-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds, four blocked shots, one steal, one turnover, no assists. Ibaka’s had 100 games almost exactly like that. About the biggest change in that game from the norm was the 6-of-7. Ibaka is more of a 6-of-9 guy.
Ibaka has played 14 playoff games in 2014. He’s made exactly six baskets in nine of those games. Only once in those 14 games has Ibaka taken more than 11 shots. He took 12 in Game 2 against the Grizzlies.
In the playoffs, Ibaka is averaging 12.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and is shooting 63 percent from the field. You know what you’re getting from Ibaka every night.
On a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, whose performances, while often spectacular and always productive, vary wildly, Ibaka’s consistency is invaluable.
So the only mystery Sunday night was Ibaka’s health. Could he run? Could he jump?
Yes and yes. The guy who was not “coming through those doors,” as Brooks famously said in San Antonio, was the most physical marvel on the court, other than Westbrook.
The real story of Sunday night was Ibaka’s recovery. Was it a medicine man? Was it divine intervention? Was it subterfuge by the Thunder Star Chamber?
Whatever, it was just what the Thunder needed.
“He’s done what he’s been doing for us all season,” Westbrook said. “Came out with a great mindset defensively, altered some shots, blocked some shots, and he makes you think about going in there – he makes you think twice about going in there, and you seen that tonight.”
Yes we did.
Gregg Popovich continued to poke pins into Sam Presti. When asked if the hobbled Ginobili would be OK for Game 4, Pop said, “He’ll be fine. Or he’s out for the playoffs.”
The media cracked up.
“You’ve still got to have some fun even if you lose,” Popovich said. “Come on, it’s basketball. Yeah, we wanted to win. But I want to laugh, too. Make sure Sammy gets that.”
Was the Thunder sandbagging? I don’t know. But when Ibaka plays, the real mind games start. They’re like in Hamlet or whichever Shakespeare script the girl picks at the plant. “He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not.”
Shoot, don’t shoot. Shoot, don’t shoot.
Ibaka’s greatest defensive value is not the shots he blocks. It’s the shots he alters or prevents. Going into the lane with Ibaka on the court is like running into a burning house. You’re entering trying to figure out how to exit.
In fact, crazy as it sounds, not counting the last 6:08, when Popovich played his junior varsity, the Spurs shot better with Ibaka on the court (40 percent) than they did without Ibaka on the court (37 percent).
The paint points turned around, of course. Officially, the Thunder outscored the Spurs 46-40 in paint points.
Realistically, the Thunder outscored the Spurs 60-43 in paint points (not counting the JV game). The Thunder got 14 points off fouls in the paint. The Spurs got zero.
That’s a story of offensive aggression and defensive discipline. The Thunder didn’t foul much while defending the paint. The Spurs did.
Durant had 25 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. He made eight of 19 shots. And think about this. He probably was the fourth-most compelling figure in the game for the Thunder.
Ibaka, of course. Then Reggie and his new role, in which he flourished. And finally, Westbrook, who like that Seinfeld girlfriend who turned from beautiful to hideous and back, moment after moment, was his usual fascinating self.
It was like Durant was just out there playing. Somewhat like Kawhi Leonard was for the Spurs. Only way better.
Durant’s defense on Leonard is becoming a good storyline in this series. Leonard had his second straight sub-par game: 10 points, 4-of-11 shooting, three rebounds. Through three games, Leonard has made 13 of 31 shots and scored 30 points.
The Spurs often are fine with that kind of production from Leonard. But sometimes they need more.
And speaking of needing more, the Thunder didn’t need it from Durant in Game 3. Durant played a solid game. His contribution was getting to the foul line. That was the big difference offensively for the Thunder; 31 foul shots. OKC shot 33 foul shots combined in the two San Antonio games.
But it’s got to feel nice for Durant when he just plays. Doesn’t have to solve every problem. Doesn’t have to bear the burden of every possession. In the postgame press conference, Durant was asked three questions.
Westbrook was asked five. Normally, you’d rather wrestle a cobra than ask Westbrook a question. But there wasn’t much to ask Durant. Of the three questions asked Durant, two were about Ibaka. Only one about Durant.
Game 3 had to feel like a day off.
Here’s the downside to Reggie Jackson starting. The Thunder bench is gutted. Ginobili outscored OKC’s reserves all by his lonesome, 23-21, even though Manu didn’t play in the fourth quarter and the Thunder’s deep reserves – Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones among them – played the final 3:17.
Of course, it doesn’t help the Thunder bench that Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison didn’t play at all. How you go from needed to start to not needed at all is a question for Foreman Scotty.
Thabo clearly has lost his job, at least in this series, the way he lost it to Caron Butler the final two games of the Memphis series. I wonder if Brooks could use Sefolosha in this series as an antidote for Ginobili. Ginobili has shown that he’s going to be a total mess for the Thunder. In three games, Ginobili is averaging 17.3 points, shooting 59 percent from the field and has made 10 of 15 3-pointers. What if Brooks trotted out Thabo as a Ginobili stopper? Thabo, normally at least, is tailor-made to guard someone like Ginobili. Of course, Sefolosha hasn’t been himself in this series. So who knows?
Tim Duncan scored 27 points in Game 1. But in the last two games, Duncan has made 12 of 29 shots and averaged 15 points a game. Not bad. But not difference-making. Kendrick Perkins has done a good job on Duncan, who is getting virtually no points out of the post, and Steven Adams has done a solid job, too.
Game 1 was the aberration. The San Antonio Express-News ran a big story on Duncan before Game 2 – so did we. Our headline was “OLD MAN RIVERWALK.” The Express-News’ headline was “MR. RELIABLE,” a shot across the newspaper bow. We deserved it.
But the truth is, just like I was trying to say before the series, Duncan, while still a fine player, is not a dominant player. When a 38-year-old post man scores 27 points, that’s partially because that 38-year-old post man is a player for the ages. But it’s also partially on the defense.
Perk and Adams have done a good job, and with Ibaka back, there’s no reason to expect that to change.
MORE PAINT PROTECTION
The Thunder perimeter defenders, no doubt buoyed by the return of Ibaka, were much better in Game 3.
While Ginobili went crazy in the second quarter, most of his damage came from 3-pointers, some of them circus-variety shots. Ginobili made six of nine on 3-pointers.
The Thunder did a much better job on Danny Green (3-of-12, including 1-of-10 the final 44 minutes) and Tony Parker.
The Spurs in Game 1 made 33 of 49 shots in the paint. The Spurs in Game 2 made 27 of 41 shots in the paint. That’s a combined 60 of 90; 67 percent.
The Spurs in Game 3 made 20 of 42 shots; 48 percent.
If the Spurs have paint numbers like in Game 1 and Game 2, they can’t lose.
If the Spurs have paint numbers like in Game 3, they can’t win.
“I think the biggest thing that changed was the intensity on the defensive end,” Durant said.