Charles Dickens said it best: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Thus the Oklahoma City Thunder’s performance against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals can be described.
The Thunder posted a 105-92 win over the Spurs Tuesday night in Game 4 of the series, evening things at two games apiece with the series headed back to San Antonio for Game 5 on Thursday.
And that’s where things could get dicey for the Thunder.
In the first two games at San Antonio, things couldn’t have been much more lopsided in favor of the Spurs:
OKC: 42.6% FG, 29.8% 3PT, 72.7 FT, 37.5 RPG, 15 TOPG, 91 PPG
SAS: 53.8% FG, 45% 3PT, 85% FT, 46.5 RPG, 10.5 TOPG, 117 PPG
So fast forward to Games 3 and 4 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena and the numbers tell an entirely different tale:
OKC: 47.1% FG, 34.2% 3PT, 80.6% FT, 47 RPG, 12.5 TOPG, 105.5 PPG
SAS: 39.7% FG, 35.8% 3PT, 84.2% FT, 38.5 RPG, 14.5 TOPG, 94.5 PPG
Obviously, one major difference for the Thunder was the return of Serge Ibaka for Game 3. In the two games he’s played in the series, Ibaka is averaging 12 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game, while shooting 10-for-15 from the floor.
Besides Ibaka’s obvious defensive presence at the rim, there are things Ibaka does for the Thunder offensively that can’t be overlooked.
With Nick Collison or Steven Adams playing at the 4, the Spurs really didn’t have to worry much about defending the pick and pop with Russell Westbrook handling the ball. Neither Collison nor Adams is a threat to shoot the ball from the perimeter.
In the playoffs, Collison is only 1-for-6 from 16 to 24 feet after going 20-for-50 from that range during the regular season.
Adams is even less of a threat from out there—much less. He missed the one shot he took from that distance in the regular season and hasn’t tried one in the playoffs. In fact, Adams had taken almost 68 percent of his shots at the rim and only 12 attempts total from outside of 10 feet.
Not exactly the ideal pick and pop partner with Westbrook.
Ibaka, meanwhile, is one of the best bigs in the league in the mid-range game. During the regular season, Ibaka converted 45.7 percent of his shots in the 16-24 range (138-for-302) and is shooting a cool 22-for-44 (50 percent) in the playoffs from there.
Among bigs (centers and power forwards) with more than 10 attempts from mid-range in the playoffs, Ibaka’s 50 percent shooting from that distance is behind only Chris Bosh (19-for-35, 54.3 percent), Joakim Noah (7-for-13, 53.8 percent) and David West (38-for-75, 50.7 percent) are knocking down that shot with more frequency than Ibaka.
So if teams overcommit to Westbrook on the penetration, Ibaka stands ready to knock down a mid-range J. If Ibaka is covered, Westbrook will likely have the advantage on a one-on-one driving opportunity.
That added dimension, along with what Ibaka brings to Oklahoma City defensively, translates to the huge turnaround from the first two games of the series to the last two.
There is a reason the Thunder went 4-0 against San Antonio in the regular season and there is a reason the club is 6-0 against the Spurs with Ibaka in the lineup.
It is because of the contributions Ibaka makes on both ends of the floor, not merely his defensive presence.
Stats from NBA.com/Stats and basketball-reference.com.