“He’s not coming back..he’s not coming through those doors.”
Those were the words from Oklahoma City Thunder head coach after his team’s Game 1 loss of the Western Conference Finals when asked if forward Serge Ibaka would return from a calf injury. On Friday, the Thunder got some unexpected good news when Ibaka’s status went from ‘out for the season’ to ‘day-to-day.’
On Sunday night, he was in the starting lineup.
Ibaka returned to score 15 points and shot 85 percent as he helped the Thunder grab the 106-97 win to trim San Antonio’s series lead to 2-1. His presence helped Oklahoma City on the defensive end of the court especially in the paint, holding the Spurs to just 39.6 percent shooting. San Antonio averaged 60 points in the paint after the first two games, shooting 76.8 percent. In Game 3, the Spurs scored 40 in the paint and shot just 50 percent in the restricted area.
Despite Ibaka being back in the lineup, the Spurs’ focus remains the same. San Antonio made mistakes in Game 3 that they know they have to correct, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich even went as far as to challenge All-Star point guard Tony Parker.
“He’s our best player,” Popovich said. “He’s got to play better.”
Parker finished Game 3 with just nine points on 4 for 13 shooting and committed four turnovers. Tim Duncan shot 41.2 percent, while the combo of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (who performed well in the first two games) were just 7-of-23 (30.4 percent).
By now we’ve all heard the story of 2012 when the San Antonio Spurs were up 2-0 in the Conference Finals only to lose four straight to these Thunder, but as I’ve pointed out the two teams are completely different. James Harden is now in Houston and Stephen Jackson, who guarded Kevin Durant is no longer with the team.
But despite all of that the facts and stats prove that Oklahoma City is better when Ibaka is on the court. Oklahoma City outscored the Spurs by a total of 29 points and are outscored by 44 points when he is off the court.
Ibaka was not 100 percent and was seen limping numerous times back to the locker room. However, the Spurs did not help themselves with poor play. Parker committed turnovers on three straight possessions in the first half and seemed to mentally not have his head in the game. San Antonio also made just 14 of 42 uncontested shots, which was a completely different story in the first two games.
The Spurs remained focused and ready for Game 4, Parker knows it all starts with him and says he will play better on Tuesday.
“I take a lot of responsibility,” Parker said. “That’s my job on this team, to get everything going. That’s why I took it hard last night, because I felt like I didn’t play well. (Popovich) is right. I have to play better, and I know it. I’ll try to bounce back.”
In Game 4, I expect to see a different Spurs team. I see the Silver & Black attacking the rim early and often and try to get Ibaka into foul trouble. When he is in the game, the Spurs big men must box him out and prevent him from getting the rebound. If San Antonio plays with passion and has solid execution on both ends of the court, I like their chances to pull out a victory.
Like I said, we all know what happened in 2012. But if the Spurs don’t make adjustments to overcome Ibaka’s presence in the paint and on the glass, then we may see history repeat itself.