Two years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder did what was thought impossible. They beat the veteran San Antonio Spurs four straight games after being down 0-2 to clinch the Western Conference Finals and reach their first NBA Finals. Just a week ago, the Thunder were in the same situation, a déjàvu of sorts if you will. Minus their big man Serge Ibaka who was out because of a “season-ending” injury, the Thunder were again down 0-2 versus the same team in the Western Conference Finals. After being handily beaten by an average of 26 points in the first two games pundits, including myself, called the series already for the Spurs.
After all, the last time the Thunder came back from such a deficit, they had a full-strength team that featured Ibaka and now Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden. Experts concluded that the Spurs’ selfless team play would always trump the dynamic duo of Russell Westbrook and league MVP Kevin Durant. Of course, the experts didn’t expect the miraculous return of Ibaka, who has altered the complexion of the series.
Ibaka injured his left calf in the Game 6 win versus the Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals. Given the initial severity of the injury, Oklahoma GM Sam Presti called the injury season-ending and with the announcement, the Thunder’s hopes were dashed, especially after the first two games in which they were blown out. Before Game 3, the swelling in Ibaka’s calf subsided and the Thunder were able to conduct more tests that showed that the prognosis was not as bad.
In Game 3, Ibaka was cleared to play and he played with a vengeance. He scored 15 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and swatted away 4 shots. The Thunder also won convincingly. The next game, Ibaka scored only 9 points, and got 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. Again, the Thunder won to even the series 2-2. While he doesn’t post headline-grabbing numbers, Ibaka can be considered the 2nd most important player after Durant since he is the team’s defensive anchor. His mere presence alone is invaluable. It can be recalled that Westbrook was injured for a stretch during the regular season and Durant took on the scoring and the Thunder kept winning.
Ibaka allows the Thunder to basically cheat on defense and overplay off picks and rolls. This in turn disrupts the offense and results in steals and fastbreak points. The Thunder’s perimeter defenders can do this knowing that they will have protection at the rim. He also grabs a lot of rebounds on both ends sparking the offense.
In Game 5, Ibaka was a non-factor only making 3 of 10 shots as the Spurs were in control the entire time and blew out the Thunder 117-89 in this decisive game. Statistically, teams that win Game 5 in a seven-game series to break a tie wins. If we go by this series, the home team always wins, and we expect the Thunder to take Game 6 and set-up an exciting Game 7.
The return of Ibaka has given the Thunder a chance, a chance for their 2nd Finals appearance in 3 years. This series has suddenly become more interesting.