Earlier this week, the Oklahoma City Thunder snapped the Spurs’ epic 20-game win streak. Saturday night, the Spurs started a 2-game losing streak and find the Western Conference Finals all tied up at two games a piece.
While Kevin Durant approached supernova levels of dominance in the fourth quarter, it was Serge Ibaka’s flawless play that powered OKC to victory. We’ve seen Ibaka seriously impact games in the past with his ridiculous shot-blocking ability, but it’s rare that he explodes on the offensive end. It became apparent early on that the Spurs weren’t too interested in closing out on Ibaka when he caught the ball 18 feet from the rim. Serge responded by draining each and every jumper he took. The only time he touched the rim was when he was blowing past San Antonio’s interior defense and throwing down ferocious dunks. When all was said and done, Ibaka finished the night with 26 points on 11 of 11 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 from the charity stripe.
What does this mean for the series? Eh, probably not a whole lot. We’ve now got arguably the two best teams in the NBA fighting it out in a best-of-3 series and predicting a winner is anybody’s guess. If you ask a Spurs fan, they’ll tell you that there’s no freakin’ way that Serge Ibaka drops another 26 points in a game this series. I mean, they would have also told you there was no way that Thabo Sefolosha would mess around and pour in a cool 19 points — but that happened in Game 3. In both of the Thunder’s wins, they’ve had these spectacular performances from role players while their stars struggled to get going. Counting on role players to step up is no game plan to beat the Spurs four times, right? Well, if anybody knows about lesser players coming up with huge contributions, the Spurs know. Hell, that’s what they’ve been relying on for much of their epic and relatively unexpected deep playoff run this year. Danny Green, the same guy who got cut from the Cavaliers in favor of Manny Harris is suddenly hitting step-back jumpers and draining threes all over the place. Boris Diaw was waived by the worst team in NBA history. But now he’s starting for the Spurs and posting a blistering 61.9 TS%. Stephen Jackson is shooting 59.3% from behind the arc in the playoffs. FIFTY NINE POINT THREE. So if Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha’s performances are being considered unsustainable by Spurs fans, how do you think Clippers and Thunder fans feel about San Antonio’s array of unlikely heroes?
The Spurs have a remarkable offensive system built on their pinpoint ball movement. Each and every one of Popovich’s players is a willing (and competent) passer. Tony Parker has played like a superstar all season long. Tim Duncan looks rejuvenated. The Spurs are a fantastic team with a fantastic coach and some fantastic players. If I were describing the Thunder, you’d hear (see?) me say (type?) very similar words. The ultimate decider in this series will be the guys who aren’t typically described as “fantastic” — guys like Tiago Splitter and Nick Collison. Both teams are planning and scheming to stop one another’s star players. As you read this, Coach Pop is probably desperately trying to figure out how to stop Kevin Durant. Scotty Brooks is wondering if it’s just a matter of time until Tony Parker finds a crack in Sefolosha’s defense.
If this series goes the distance, Game 7 will likely be determined by someone providing an unexpected and yes, unsustainable, performance. The losing team’s fans will sit and think “how the shit did we let THAT guy beat us? There’s no way he’ll do that again!” But then it’ll be over. The winner will advance and someone will be etched in NBA history, even if just for that one spectacular effort. Think Boobie Gibson raining down threes against Detroit in Game 7 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Think Goran Dragic eviscerating the Spurs in 2010.
I’m looking forward to something random and unrepeatable. Something that disappears as violently as it appears.