It turns out, getting one of your best players back really does help.
It was more than just getting Serge Ibaka back in the lineup, although that mattered. A lot. It was also being home where clearly the Thunder role players were more comfortable. It was a couple days off to gather themselves. It was some lineup changes by Scott Brooks that changed the dynamic on the court and gave the Thunder scoring.
Brooks inserted the suddenly healthy Ibaka plus Reggie Jackson in the starting lineup and got what he wanted — the spacing, ball movement and just plane good shooting was back in the Thunder offense. OKC was the team attacking again, rather than settling. Ibaka was 6-of-7 Parker for 15 points with seven rebounds and four blocked shots. With Ibaka in the paint Tony Parker and the Spurs were more hesitant inside the Thunder defense was aggressive and athletic and all that threw the Spurs well-oiled machine off — the Spurs shot just 50 percent in the restricted area.
Oklahoma City won Game 3 106-97 to cut the Spurs lead in the series to 2-1.
The real questions are can Ibaka come back and play like this in Game 4 Tuesday in OKC (he was clearly limping at points late in Game 3)? Will the Thunder defense follow with him again be a force? And how will the Spurs respond?
If the Thunder win Game 4 we have a series, if the Spurs do this series could end in five.
The key in Game 4 for Oklahoma City will be Tony Parker, who was 4-of-13 shooting for 9 points and he was just 1-of-6 inside 8 feet. A more aggressive Russell Westbrook guarding him and the presence of Ibaka made Parker hesitate in the paint, and he is the catalyst for all things San Antonio on offense.
Ibaka was the catalyst for the Thunder, from the opening tip the Thunder were moving the ball and attacking in transition off Spurs misses.
The Thunder put up 28 first quarter points on 12-of-19 shooting, Ibaka was 4-of-4, and the tempo was up. It was everything the Spurs have wanted offensively. Problem was, the Spurs scored 29.
That is how the first half went. Tony Parker started the game 1-of-6 shooting with three turnovers, in fact the Spurs got sloppy with the ball and the Thunder turned that into a 13-2 run. Kevin Durant had 13 in the first half, Westbrook 12 and Ibaka 10, the Thunder shot 56 percent as a team in the first half.
Yet at the half it was a four point Thunder lead, 57-53.
Credit Manu Ginobili for a lot of that, he was 5-of-7 from three and had 20 points. San Antonio hit 7-of-15 from three in the first half to stay in it. Well, that plus the 12 Thunder turnovers helped.
In the third quarter the Thunder were on a parade to the free throw line — 22 times to the Spurs zero in the quarter. In the NBA foul calls usually go to the aggressor and that stat tells you all you need to know about how that quarter looked. At the end of the third it was a seven point OKC lead, you could see which way the game was tilted but the Thunder just could not pull away.
Then the Thunder opened up fourth on 7-0 run as Boris Diaw, who had been reliable from three the first two games of this series, missed a couple and at the other end the Thunder were making plays with Reggie Jackson driving the lane and Caron Butler hitting a corner three.
From there the rout was on. By 5 minutes left in the game Gregg Popovich pulled his starters and made it garbage time.
Westbrook had 26 points and Kevin Durant 25 (both were 8-of-19 shooting) but it was the 15 a piece from Ibaka and Jackson that were the key.
Ginobili finished with 23 points, Tim Duncan had 16 points on 17 shots, Kawhi Leonard had 10 on 11 shots. As a team the Spurs shot 39.6 percent on the night.
The Thunder’s defense, when they are healthy, has given the Spurs trouble for a couple years now. If the Spurs don’t figure it out by Game 4 this is going to be a best-of-three.