Serge Ibaka returned to the court last night, miraculously recovering what was deemed to be a season-ending injury (or, at least it was supposed to be, until it was discovered the second, more severe injury didn’t happened, which really raises a whole other set of questions about the Thunder’s medical staff, but that’s for another time). His impact on the game was immediately apparent — stretching the floor on offense and locking down the paint on defense.
His return also marked the re-emergence of the greatest interruption to the Spurs’ well-oiled offense — the Thunder’s defense. Against almost any other team, Spurs offense is a methodical, unstoppable juggernaut. It flows in such a way that it seems like the Spurs are operating without regard toe the opponents’ presence, as if this isn’t a game but a fast-paced walkthrough. Against the Thunder, the Spurs’ offense looks labored. It’s a foreign concept, seeing the Spurs actually have to try to create open looks. The reason for their struggles is a defense that leverages tremendous length and athleticism to create uncomfortable pauses in the Spurs’ progressions. Yet this defense doesn’t work without its crucial part. The Thunder are not the Spurs in that they’re unable to replace any broken or missing cog with any other — they must have all essential parts to operate at full capacity.
In the first two games of the series, we saw the Spurs get any shot they wanted with little difficulty. Tony Parker rarely had to adjust a shot at the rim because there was no threat of a block. Tim Duncan was never rushed because neither Kendrick Perkins nor Nick Collison are quick enough to recover after collapsing on a driver. Ginobili, Green, Bellinelli and the rest of the Spurs’ shooters couldn’t have asked for more open looks, because the Thunder as a whole had to sag off the shooters just a little bit more to compensate for Ibaka’s absence.
Game three, and Ibaka’s return, changed everything. Tony Parker could still get into the lane, but the looming lank of Ibaka forced him to alter his shot. When Parker or any other Spur kicked it out to the shooters, the looks weren’t as clean, since the Thunder’s perimeter defenders no longer had to sag or collapse as far.
Like Chris Bosh to the Heat, Ibaka is the keylog of the Thunder’s offense, the piece that holds the rest of the structure together. Without him, the dam bursts. It’s not just Ibaka’s shot-blocking that throws the Spurs off course, it’s the threat of the block — the ripple effects of his presence that’s as valuable to the Thunder as it is poisonous to the Spurs.
As always, it’s key to remember that this is just one game. Ibaka had ten days of rest before playing last night — how will he fare with just one day off between games while still battling an injury? Still, even if he’s not 100%, as Game three proved, a less-than-fully-healthy Ibaka is still better for the Thunder than any other possible formation they could use. If Ibaka’s able to replicate his game three performance, the Spurs are once more faced with a riddle they’ve never quite been able to solve, and the Thunder have a renewed sense of hope.