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WCF Game 3: But It Goes To 11

By Jeff Koch on May 25, 2014.

San Antonio 97, Oklahoma City 106
San Antonio leads series 2-1

Heeeee’s baaaaaack.

Serge Ibaka made his miraculous return in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and the Oklahoma City Thunder rolled right over the San Antonio Spurs.

There is correlation, certainly, but to conflate the two is a bit reductive.

Ibaka’s return helped OKC protect the rim much better AND Tony Parker had a miserable game, perhaps one of the worst of his playoff career.

Ibaka’s return spread the floor for the Thunder on offense, stretching the Spurs’ defense thin AND San Antonio didn’t bring the requisite energy or focus to that end of the floor.

Ibaka’s return energized the team and the crowd AND the Spurs came out flat and put in a dud performance.

We’re not dealing with mutual exclusivity here. There are way too many moving parts to separate and compartmentalize, to attribute everything in this game to the return of one really good player. Truthfully, the Thunder were always going to bring more energy in this game, down 2-0 and in front of their home crowd. They were a desperate team, playing for its season. No team comes back from 3-0, and that’s what they were facing. And the Spurs, disappointingly, always had the potential for a giant letdown game, comfortable in their lead and knowing they only ‘need’ to win one of these 2 games. It’s why Game 3s in this scenario (two evenly matched teams, with the higher seed having taken the first two at home) often produce these types of duds.

Ibaka or no, it was an energy differential. The Thunder brought it, the Spurs never responded. There will probably be a lot of chatter about the free throw disparity, but to the aggressor go the foul calls. Oklahoma City attacked relentlessly and earned their free throw trips. Some calls may have been specious, sure, but this wasn’t poor officiating. The Thunder were just better: faster, stronger, more aggressive, and more assertive.

We can forgive this loss if it’s just the typical Game 3 dud. And perhaps it is. But this game was also eerily reminiscent of Game 3 in 2012. In that game, the Thunder turned their athleticism and overall physical superiority up ‘to 11’ and just swarmed the Spurs off of the court. They closed on shooters faster than the Spurs were used to; they shut down passing lanes the Spurs weren’t used to; they forced shots quicker than the Spur were used to; they used their length and their speed to bother the Spurs on every pass, cut, dribble, and simple basketball play; they made the Spurs play quick, the only team in the league that can really force the Spurs to do that, to play out of their comfort zone. The Spurs looked completely discombobulated.

At the time, we wondered if it was a one-game aberration, just the Spurs letting down after cruising so easily for the better part of two months. Let’s wait until Game 4, we said. After Game 4, well, surely they’ll win back at home in Game 5, we said.

I’m not saying this is like 2012, because we don’t know. We won’t know until we do, and then it will be over. (How’s that for analysis?) But more than the return of Serge or the Thunder playing quite well at home quite unsurprisingly, or even the Spurs laying a kind-of expected goose egg, this is what we should fear: that the Thunder have once again reclaimed their Spurs-kililng swagger. Because no team in the league–not even the Miami Heat–can gum up the Spurs pristine execution like this Thunder team playing like this. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since 2012. The Spurs are a much better team from then, but they’re still bothered by the same attributes possessed by this Thunder team.

I expect the San Antonio Spurs to play much better on Tuesday, and I expect Game 4 to be an absolute battle. Game 3 might have been a blip, an end-of-season-looming kick in the pants for Oklahoma City. It’s up to the Spurs to make that so, though, and to take care of business in Game 4. If they can win, the series probably ends in 5. If they lose Game 4 (and in a similar manner), I’ll start to get very worried.

But we won’t know until we know.

Go Spurs Go.

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