Serge Ibaka‘s return had an immediate impact on the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s chances to win the Western Conference Finals. Game 4 fell into the Thunder’s hands with their shot blocker protecting the paint against the Spurs’ crafty veterans. Without Ibaka the Thunder fell behind 0-2 against the San Antonio Spurs. No one can say that Ibaka’s presence doesn’t command respect from fans and the Spurs themselves. During Game 4 of the WCF, Gregg Popovich made a statement during a timeout about how the Spurs should use caution when driving to the bucket. That statement proves just how important Ibaka’s presence is. All of the articles stating that Serge’s return won’t be enough for OKC to bounce back have already been discredited due to the fact that he has already saved OKC from falling behind 0-3 — which usually signals the end of a series, especially since no team in NBA history has fought back from such a deficit to conquer a series in any round of the playoffs.
During the regular season, Ibaka proved to be the Thunder’s third scoring option. He averaged a career-high 15.1 points per game along with with a career high in rebounds, pulling down 8.8 boards per game. The Thunder may have not have won Game 3 without Ibaka, but that’s just a hypothetical thesis. The facts show that they did win with him, and there’s no reason anyone should believe that this team cannot come back to take the series home and earn their second trip to the NBA Finals in three years. Everyone may soon be reminded that the Thunder are still the team to beat in the Western Conference. One thing writers, fans and bystanders alike tend to forget is that the Thunder defeated the Spurs in the 2012 conference finals after falling behind 0-2. Everyone who counted out the Thunder will be changing their stories quickly if they come out of tonight’s game with a victory.
During the playoffs, Ibaka has averaged 2.4 blocks per game, along with 12.4 points per game. They are missing a huge chunk of their offense and defense without No. 9 on the floor. After being counted out, Ibaka pushed his body to the limit in order to get himself healthy enough to give his team an edge in Game 3. If Scott Brooks truly felt the Thunder could win without Ibaka, then he would still be out. But knowing the Thunder’s chances of winning were slim to none without him, he gave Ibaka the go ahead to return and things played in the Thunder’s favor — at least for one game.
I expect tonight’s game to be a lot like Game 3. The Thunder have no reason to change their gameplan, while the Spurs have every reason to rethink their approach to closing out the series. Without Ibaka, they were free to drive through the lane with no fear. Now they’re watching their backs with every dribble they make, fearing that Ibaka “The Shot Blocka” is lurking in the shadows, ready to send shots into the stands. Fear plays a big part in the game of basketball. Ibaka’s presence gives OKC the advantage going forward. Will they cash in on this golden opportunity to tie the series up? Well we’ll just have to wait and see.