The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have not had the series many expected thus far in the Western Conference Finals; the first two games were blowouts, with the Spurs taking them by 17 and 35 points, respectively, and then the Thunder took Game 3 by nine, but in reality it was not that close. Game 3 may swing the momentum back in the way of the Thunder, as they pulled within 2-1 of the series, but the Spurs should not yet be worried about losing the series as Game 3 had some fluky occurrences.
For Game 3 the Thunder were clearly fueled by the return of Serge Ibaka. He was supposedly out for the remainder of the postseason with a calf injury, but felt good enough to get back into the starting lineup Sunday. It was not the stage or level of Willis Reed limping out onto the court during the 1970 NBA Finals, but nonetheless it gave a huge boost to the Thunder home crowd and Ibaka’s teammates as he showed he was willing to put the team ahead of himself. The Spurs had semi-thought Ibaka would be back, but it is hard to prepare for a player until he is fully back, and Game 4 you can count on the Spurs being ready for Ibaka.
The free throw differential will also raise the eyes of plenty of people. In the first two games of the series, the Spurs took seven more free throws than the Thunder, attempting 40 to their 33. Game 3 saw a massive difference in free throw attempts, as the Thunder took 31, while the Spurs attempted only nine.
Where this was really surprising was in the third quarter, when the Thunder attempted 22 free throws, making 18, while the Spurs attempted zero. Those are numbers the Thunder cannot count on to occur again.
The performance of Tony Parker was surprising as well; he was unable to get going in Game 3, shooting 4-of-13 and scoring only nine points after dominating Games 1 and 2. He was not as aggressive Sunday night, as the presence of Ibaka seemed to change the Spurs’ offensive approach, throwing them out of whack like the Thunder had hoped.
While there were some fluky things that will be hard to count on throughout a series for the Thunder, Scott Brooks does deserve some credit. Even with Ibaka’s return, Brooks made some changes to the rotation, as Reggie Jackson was inserted into the starting lineup, replacing Thabo Sefolosha, and taking Nick Collison out of the rotation altogether. Both moves paid off, as the Thunder picked up the much needed victory.
The NBA playoffs are all about adjustments, and no one does them better than Gregg Popovich. Brooks made some in Game 3 that helped put the Thunder over the top. It is now Popovich and the Spurs’ turn to counter those changes and try to bring the series back to San Antonio up 3-1.