Serge Ibaka changed the dynamic of the Spurs/Thunder series, no doubt. After being declared out for the series with a calf injury he was back in Game 3 and was blocking shots (four) while altering others in the paint on defense, he was helping space out the floor on offense. Combine that with the comforts of being home and the Thunder were a different team in Game 3.
But the Spurs were a different team, too.
Gregg Popovich called the first half the worst defense he had seen from the Spurs all season. Tony Parker was 4-of-13 shooting with as many turnovers as assists. Spurs not named Manu Ginobili shot 35.9 percent overall and 23.5 percent from three. The Spurs were out rebounded by 16.
Yes, Ibaka’s return helped influence the Spurs poor play, but the fact is the Spurs shot 40.7 percent when he was on the court and 37.5 percent when he was off it. They shot worse from three when he was off the court. It you watched the game, you saw the Spurs just flat out miss a number of good looks they normally knock down.
That is the big question for Game 4 Tuesday night, not can Ibaka’s play keep lifting the Thunder — it can and will — but how will the Spurs respond?
If the Spurs play up to their standards from the first couple rounds of the playoffs and the first couple games of this series, Game 4 could be a classic.
Back before this series started and before we knew the extent of Ibaka’s injury, we thought we had a real series on our hands — evenly matched, a tight series that could go either way. Now we have that. It’s going to be a good show.
For the Spurs, they need to get back to defending without fouling — they were the best in the league at it but in Game 3 the Thunder lived at the line (31 free throw attempts). Part of that was the Thunder were the clear aggressors and attacking, but still the Spurs were uncharacteristically fouling.
The Thunder should still be playing with a sense of desperation — they can’t just trade wins, go down 3-1 in this series and it’s all but over — but they got a boost in Game 3 from more than just Ibaka. Reggie Jackson being inserted into the starting lineup also provided scoring balance and the Spurs did not exploit the defensive mismatch (Russell Westbrook was usually on Parker and Danny Green was just 3-of-12 at the other guard spot). Jackson will be back in the starting lineup and while he had 15 points he was 1-of-6 from three and the Thunder may need better than that.
The Thunder need the much improved defense to keep clicking as well, their rotations were much sharper in Game 3 — Ibaka deserves the credit there. His ability to cover ground defensively, his timing, are very impressive and knowing he is back there protecting the rim lets the perimeter Thunder defenders be more aggressive, more confident.
You couldn’t watch Game 3 Sunday and not think back to 2012, when the Spurs won the first two games of the Western Conference Finals before the Thunder figured out how their athleticism could disrupt the Spurs offense, then the Thunder won the next four and went on to the NBA Finals. That Game 3 and Sunday night had a similar feel.
But it is Game 4 Tuesday that will be more telling of what kind of series we have the rest of the way. The Spurs are not prone to have a couple bad games in a row. The question is will that be enough?