Holding Court - ‘Serge’ factor gives Thunder power surge to tie West Finals
Make no mistake, this Western final series between San Antonio and Oklahoma City would have been probably over, give or take one game, had OKC’s top defensive player Serge Ibaka not returned in the last two games. As it is, the series is all tied up at 2-2 following the Thunder’s 105-92 rout of the Spurs in Game 4, with Ibaka’s return providing OKC an unmistakable power surge on both ends of the court.
That unexpected return – at least in the eyes of the public that the Thunder must have managed to delude in announcing that their 6-foot-10 forward had been lost for the season before the San Antonio series could start – was the major factor in the Thunder’s 106-97 victory in Game 3 and was again a key reason in their Game 4 triumph.
Ibaka was the great defensive presence in both games and more, hardly giving a hint of the left calf strain he’s recovering from with his play as he clogged the lanes against the Spurs’ penetrations, blocked and altered shots, and closed out on shooters to make them miss. In addition, he gave OKC a much-needed court spacer, making all his shots at the start of Game 3 for eight quick points to allow his team’s top gunners, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, ample space to work with.
In that Game 3 victory, Ibaka had 15 points, seven rebounds and four of the Thunder’s 10 blocked shots that stymied the Spurs’ previously high-octane offense. In the Game 4 rout, which saw the Thunder break the game open in the second quarter with 10 unanswered points fueled by their defense, he had nine points, eight rebounds and three shot blocks.
True, it was Westbrook, playing probably his best game of the season with 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals, who was mainly responsible for that breakaway, but without Ibaka’s intimidating presence, it would have been much easier for the Spurs to implement their offensive scheme based on quick ball movement and lane incursions. And Westbrook wouldn’t have had the opportunity to gamble without Ibaka at the back and then frolic with those steals that led to breakaway baskets.
(RELATED: The Russell Westbrook Experience)
The Thunder outscored San Antonio in fastbreak points 21-0 as the Spurs turned the ball over 13 times for 21 OKC points. They also limited the Spurs to just 36 points inside – compared to their 60-point average in the first two games – as Ibaka simply intimidated the Spurs’ penetrators and made it harder for San Antonio’s big men especially Tiago Splitter, who could just score three points after tallying four in the previous contest. That forced Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to sit down his starters with still about five minutes left in the third quarter and never send them back in the fourth period except for Danny Green, who had another woeful performance with three points after his eight-point game in the previous contest.
Ibaka definitely changed the equation with his return as the Thunder reprised in the last two games what they did in sweeping their four-game regular-season series with San Antonio. The numbers prove OKC is a different team with Ibaka defending against the Spurs’ inside incursions. The Thunder are just allowing less than 95 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the court. With Ibaka on the bench, the Thunder have been allowing more than 120 points per 100 possessions.
Of course, the vastly-underrated offensive game of the five-year veteran has also provided a big difference, with Durant complementing Westbrook in the fourth contest with 31 points, his highest in the series, for a combined 71 points, the most by any duo this postseason. That’s more than the 51-point total they had in Game 3 and their paltry 30-point aggregate in Game 2 as Ibaka’s ability to space the floor with his mid-range jumpshot provided them more room to operate. Ibaka actually leads all players with at least 20 attempts in the playoffs in mid-range shooting percentage, hitting more than 50 percent of his attempts from that distance. During the regular season, Ibaka connected on 46.9 percent of his mid-range shots, fourth in the NBA among 65 players with at least 250 attempts.
The Spurs’ downfall, of course, was hastened in Game 3 by Tony Parker’s worst game in the playoffs, with the French superstar scoring a playoff-low nine points after shooting just 4-of-13 from the floor. Parker had a better game somewhat in Game 4 with 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting but with San Antonio falling far behind early, Popovich opted to rest him along with most of his fellow starters for Game 5 at home on Thursday (Friday in Manila).
“We’re just going to have to play better, bottom line. We didn’t play well here. Now all we can control is Game 5,” Parker said.
They better do. Back in 2012, the Spurs also looked dominant in racing to a 2-0 lead against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals. But the Thunder reeled off four straight victories to make it to the championship series for the first time since transferring from Seattle in 2008.
Can they force a déjà vu this time around? Not if Popovich can help it. Popovich rested his starters through most of the stretch after it became obvious the Spurs would be battling uphill, obviously thinking that losing a road game is better than giving up one at home the next time out.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, meanwhile, hardly rested Westbrook even if the game was well in hand, with the 6-3 All-Star going all of 46 minutes and Durant himself for 41. Ibaka logged 35 minutes of his own.
“I was very disappointed that we didn’t come out with more of a foot-in-the-neck sort of attitude,” Popovich said after their Game 3 loss. “They killed us on the boards, they beat us in 50-50 balls and that’s very disappointing to me.”
They can’t afford to let that happen back home, and they won’t. The league’s best coach will make sure they don’t.
Is the Eastern final series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers all over but the shouting? After the Heat’s 102-90 victory in Game 4 that gave them a commanding 3-1 lead, it does seem like it is. The Pacers simply can’t evoke the form that they harnessed last year in giving the eventual champion Heat all that they could handle.
The Heat led wire-to-wire in this one, with Chris Bosh, who had a total of 27 points in the first three games, setting the tone by scoring the game’s first eight points. He finished with 25 and drew Pacers big man Roy Hibbert away from the basket with his hot shooting. Hibbert, meanwhile, would go scoreless in a foul-plagued 22 minutes as he again provided a stark contrast to his performance against Miami in last year’s playoffs, when he averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds to help extend their series to seven games. The Pacers only lost the deciding contest in Miami, prompting them to vow they would take the homecourt advantage this time to play a Game 7 at home.
They might not even reach that far, if what they’ve shown to this point is to be the gauge. Hibbert was not the only Pacer starter to struggle as Lance Stephenson, caught in a word war with LeBron James in an attempt, he said, to get into the superstar’s head – a laughable idea if there was one – could not score until the third quarter. The 6-foot-5 Stephenson, the league leader in triple-doubles this year with five, had his worst game in the series with nine points as foul trouble also hounded him.
The Heat simply asserted themselves on both ends of the floor, and may have earned some calls from the referees in the process as they were awarded 34 free throws to the Pacers’ 17, making 30 of them. Indiana was called for 27 fouls to Miami’s 17, and this actually earned the ire of Pacers top man Paul George, who said the discrepancy accounted for the difference in the ballgame.
“I thought we outplayed them,” said George, who led Indiana with 23 points. “They won this game at the free-throw line. They really just were able to get to the line more than we were, but I thought we outplayed them. I mean, you can’t tell me we don’t attack the basket as much as they attack the basket. You can’t tell me we’re not aggressive. Maybe we’re too aggressive.”
The Pacers took 35 shots in the lane compared to the Heat’s 25, although Miami certainly took more as shots where fouls were called were not counted in that total.
“I feel like we’re just as aggressive as they are attacking the basket and making plays at the rim,” George said. “Maybe this was just home cooking.”
“We were aggressive, I thought we consistently were getting two feet in the paint,” agreed David
West, who backed George with 20 points and 12 rebounds. “We learned some new rules tonight.”
Expect the NBA to come down with fines because of the comments, which were disputed by James. The Heat’s top player, who had his best game of the series with 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, said George’s interpretation of the stat sheet was wrong.
“We did only have five turnovers, seven steals and 20 points off their turnovers,” James said as his team moved within a game of eliminating Indiana for the third straight year. “That has nothing to do with the free-throw line.”
Free throws aside, this Pacers team also seemed to implode psychologically as shown by Stephenson’s ill-advised trash talking in between games. Stephenson said before Game 4 that James’ trash talk in the series was a “sign of weakness.” He later admitted it was an “ill-fated attempt” to get in James’ head but his teammates were understandably upset at the 23-year-old guard’s stunt. They have, after all, grown weary of his oncourt antics during the season such as his poor ballhandling and stealing rebounds from his teammates.
“You know, Lance is young, and that’s a teaching point,” George said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to watch what you say. You’re on the big stage. Everything we say is going to be bulletin board material. It’s really going to have a powerful meaning behind it. We’ve just got to be smarter with situations and just voicing our opinion sometimes.
“When you make comments regarding trash talking and just being caught up between another player in a matchup, you got to bring it,” continued George, alluding to his teammate’s poor performance. “You got to bring it. I’m pretty sure a lot of people were going to be tuned in to see what Lance was going to do because of what he said.”
Maybe Larry Bird can teach his pupil how to do it. Bird was perhaps the best trash talker during his time, but he backed it up with his phenomenal play. When he called a shot, for example, he made sure he’d make it – in exactly the same spot and manner that he told his guard.
If this series is indeed over, expect Bird to look long and hard at his team this summer. He’ll probably have a few moves in store and a few heads may have to roll.
SHORTSHOTS: Six groups have shown interest in buying the LA Clippers from Donald Sterling, with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who was part of a past effort to bring the NBA back to Seattle, among them. Shelley Sterling, Donald’s estranged wife who was reportedly given the go-signal by the disgraced owner to negotiate a sale of the team, is currently weighing other offers from groups that also include former All-Star Grant Hill and billionaire investors as well as longtime Southern California residents Tony Ressler and Bruce Karsh. Although the league has made it known that it intends to fully divest the Sterling family of its ownership of the Clippers, it is believed that it won’t make any attempt to block efforts by the Sterlings to initiate the sale as long as the team is sold in its entirety… With Andray Blatche’s naturalization process having been completed, the Gilas Pilipinas team will now have someone younger than Marcus Douthit (28 years old in August to Douthit’s 34) to man the slot while the national team’s original big man takes a breather in the FIBA World Cup in Spain this coming August. Don’t expect the 6-11, 260-pound Blatche, however, to play for the country in the Asian Games. The NBA season would be in full blast when the Asiad comes in December… – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.