By Craig Fields
If Norman Maclean had written a sequel, I’m sure the name of it might have been: An Ibaka Runs Through It. Maybe a better title would have been: It runs through Ibaka. The Western Conference Championship that is. Obviously the importance of Serge Ibaka can not be denied any longer. He has unarguably been the Oklahoma City Thunder’s most valuable asset on the defensive end during these entire playoffs.
The Thunder have won the last two games of the Western Conference Finals to even the series at two games apiece. And leading that charge against the San Antonio Spurs is Ibaka. The Thunder have faced the San Antonio Spurs eight times this season, including four times in the regular season. Of those eight times, the Thunder have won six of those meetings.
It is no surprise that Ibaka was available in the six games that the Thunder won. He plays the defensive end with such tenacity that the 27-point game that Duncan had in Game 1 of this series will more than likely not be replicated. Ibaka’s defensive intensity and athleticism gives Tim Duncan fits.
With their defensive anchor back in the lineup, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant do not have to worry about checking down to the post and providing help for Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison. Westbrook has his hands full with Tony Parker. Durant can handle Kawhi Leonard with much more effectiveness on the perimeter than he can Duncan in the post.
With the return of Ibaka, Head Coach Scott Brooks has more liberty to “play” with his starting lineup. He has replaced defensive minded Thabo Sefolosha with Reggie Jackson in Game 3 and Caron Butler in Game 4. More offensive weapons on the floor, while improving on the defensive side of the ball is a tough equation to solve. And so far Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich hasn’t passed this math class this season.
With Ibaka back, Durant and Westbrook can focus mainly on what they are good at… scoring. They combined for 71 of the Thunder’s 105 points in Game 4. This is not including their peripheral stats. If you include the assists, they accounted for 87 points as opposed to the 44 points by all of the San Antonio Spurs starters combined.
Popovich will undoubtedly have something to say to his team after going to Oklahoma City and laying an egg. There is no doubt that he will have his team reinvigorated in front of their home fans. He is not one of the best coaches in NBA history for nothing.
However, there is a reason that the Thunder are 6-0 against the Spurs with a full lineup. They create mismatches and dominate the athleticism aspect on both ends of the floor. If Popovich does not find a way to solve the conundrum that is Serge Ibaka and this Thunder team, he might find himself reliving that 2012 fate in which his team won the first two games in the series and lost the next four.
This has turned into a best of three series now and you would be hard pressed to not pick the team with the younger, more athletic and hungrier players. Game 5 is Thursday (5/29) at 8 p.m.