Serge Ibaka’s Return gives the Oklahoma City Thunder life

After being declared out for the season by the Thunder, Serge Ibaka returned just two weeks later and only missed two games in total. Ibaka’s calf strain turned out not to be as severe as initially thought. Ibaka told his teammates and his coaches he’d end up playing in this series after all was said and done–it turns out he was right.

It was a borderline miracle Ibaka was able to play on Sunday. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, team doctors couldn’t see how bad the injury really was because of the swelling on his calf. Once the swelling subsided a bit, team doctors could see a bit more clearly and it turned out Ibaka’s injury wasn’t as severe as they initially thought it was.

Sam Presti knew there was a chance that Ibaka could return, but he couldn’t put the indefinite tag on Ibaka’s injury and he had good reason for doing so–if only for the sake of his own team.  He didn’t want to charge the coaches and his teammates with the burden of answering questions about his return a la Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls.

Once the story had been reported and the Thunder released a news statement, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford happened to be watching a predraft workout of prospects in the bleachers of Santa Monica Catholic High School when his cell phone rang. Presti was on the line, Buford’s protégé wanting to deliver a head’s up on the news.

Presti wanted Buford to believe he hadn’t tried to pull a fast one on the Spurs, but Presti also understood he would’ve created a distraction for calling Ibaka’s injury indefinite, because his coaches and players would’ve faced questions of his return every day. Presti was damned for declaring him out for the season, only for the season to reduce itself to two missed games.

Now those who’ve been asking why the Thunder opted to keep Ibaka over James Harden have their answer. The first two games of the series serve as the most convicting evidence. There’s no way to say that the Thunder wouldn’t be down 2-0 with Ibaka in the lineup, but there have been clear spots that they’ve needed him on both ends of the floor. The Spurs reduced most of the Thunder’s lineups to mush on the offensive end and were consistently penetrating the paint on the defensive end. The Thunder missed Ibaka in more ways than just one.

So he picked the perfect time to have his return. The Thunder were down 2-0 with their backs up against the wall and facing the possibility of a 3-0 deficit. That’s something no player in the league wants to face, so the Thunder had to make their move last night. This was a do-or-die situation and Ibaka served as the Thunder’s saving grace.

Now, we remember how the Spurs were careening the paint and controlling the pace of the game on offense throughout the first two games. The Thunder were helpless to stop Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw from driving and kicking the ball out at the rim. That all changed last night with Ibaka’s return, though.

Just take a look at the Spurs shot chart from last night. Their deficiency at the rim shows you all that you need to know about Ibaka’s impact on the defensive end. Ibaka affected the Spurs offensive exploits in only a way that he could.


But, despite a stellar defensive game with four total blocks for Ibaka, he had his biggest impact on the offensive end of the floor. He gave Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson pressure valves off of the shallow roll game. That’s what was missing for the Thunder through the first two games. The Spurs refused to guard Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha tightly through the first two contests. And, at this moment, Sefolosha still has not scored in the series. He didn’t even play in game 3 and he’ll probably meet the same fate in game 4.

In the last few years, Scott Brooks’ name has been synonymous with things like firm player rotations, a lack of offensive continuity and low ball movement on the offensive end. In the first two games Brooks tinkered with many lineups that just weren’t working. That’s what happens when you lose your best two way big and a key offensive component to a bland offense that has minimal options.

But last night, Brooks didn’t cling on to the wave that brought him this far. He elected to start Reggie Jackson instead of Sefolosha and found a lot of success with him on the floor alongside Ibaka, Perkins, Durant and Westbrook. Their lineup played in a small sample of 10 minutes, but they had a 150.4 offensive rating with a net rating of 49.9. They dominated the Spurs with rock solid basketball on both ends.

The key to that lineup was Ibaka. The Thunder had an offensive rating of 94.0 throughout the first two games. The Thunder had a whopping 125.7 offensive rating with Ibaka on the floor. That marks a 34% increase in offensive production. When he was off they had an 85.8 offensive rating–a 54% decrease. Ibaka made a big difference on the offensive end because he had to be guarded. The Spurs couldn’t afford to just leave him as they did others.

The Thunder killed the Spurs on simple pick and roll plays. In the previous two games, the Spurs were able to attack the ball handler at the top in most pick and roll situations. The Thunder’s rolling big wasn’t a threat to score or make a play on the offensive end, so they didn’t guard them. But with Ibaka on the floor, things changed. The Spurs didn’t make the adjustment of rotating a man to Ibaka when he slipped screens.

Notice how the Spurs take away every inch of space that Kevin Durant has at the top of the floor. They don’t want him to turn the corner or have any room to shoot it. Really, his only option is to pass to the roll man in Ibaka. This is what it looks like once Ibaka makes his catch and stretches the defense.

Ibaka Unguarded

Duncan is forced to rotate to Ibaka because Diaw hasn’t recovered. That takes the Spurs’ best rebounder on the floor, Tim Duncan, away from the rim and leaves Steven Adams at the front of the rim. An offensive rebound and a foul are the result.

On this next play, Ibaka serves as a pressure valve for Reggie Jackson as he is being pushed toward the baseline by the defense. Ibaka makes a shallow roll to to elbow and has a wide open jump shot.

Danny Green stunts toward Ibaka to make him hesitate on his shot. That’s the proper defensive action for Green in this situation–he should leave his man for a split second and then return. That gives Tiago Splitter the opportunity to make a solid rotation and contest. But Splitter doesn’t make the rotation back to Ibaka quickly enough nor does he contest it. That’s an easy look that Ibaka has been able to hit over the last couple of years.

The Spurs have struggled with Ibaka on the offensive end of the floor during the regular season and in their last playoff meeting as well. They just never seem to be quick enough to counter what he brings to the table. Rotations like the one above were what allowed Ibaka to have a perfect shooting night against the Spurs two series ago in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs will need to clean that up if they don’t want to struggle again in game 4.

The Spurs got some decent looks on the offensive end for themselves and missed a bunch of shots they normally make, but that won’t matter if they can’t defend against Ibaka’s presence on the floor. We now see why Ibaka is such an integral part of the Thunder on both ends. The James Harden questions have been put to bed and the Thunder are showing us that they made the right choice.

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