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Spurs-Thunder Game 3 Preview: Return of Ibaka changes things

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

Serge Ibaka could be the life the Thunder needed. (USATSI)
Serge Ibaka could be the life the Thunder needed. (USATSI)

More postseason coverage: Playoff schedule, results | Latest news, notes

Previewing Game 3 of the Spurs-Thunder Western Conference final series.

1. The Facts: 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT). Follow the action here. Serge Ibaka (calf injury) is likely to play. Everybody is good to go for the Spurs.

2. Where We Are: The San Antonio Spurs lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-0 in the Western Conference finals after completely dominating the first two games. While the Thunder put up a solid offensive effort in Game 1, they couldn't even pretend to stop the Spurs' offense throughout the game. They scored 66 points in the paint in Game 1 and shot over 70.0 percent inside the restricted area. In Game 2, the Spurs brought even more pain to OKC with a huge blowout victory.

The Thunder couldn't stop the Spurs and they couldn't keep up with their own offense. They scored just 77 points, just the third time in the Kevin Durant era that the Thunder failed to score at least 80 points in a playoff game. The Spurs kept scoring though and cruised to an easy 35-point victory. San Antonio has lived in the paint in this series without Serge Ibaka out there. However, his "likely" return means we could see a huge shift in this series over the next game or two if Ibaka is able to affect the match-up the way he typically does.

3. The Big Number: 45.7. The San Antonio Spurs were the third best team at making shots in the restricted area this season. They made 64.8 percent of their attempts in the restricted area, showing you don't need incredible athleticism to be able to be successful inside. In the four games in which they faced Ibaka and the Thunder during the regular season, they had a success rate of just 45.7 percent in the restricted area when he was on the floor. His shot blocking and help defense was a huge deterrent to the Spurs and helped the Thunder sweep the season series. The Spurs have been dominated by the Thunder since the start of Game 3 of the 2012 Western Conference finals, and Ibaka's defensive athleticism has been a big part of that.

4. Key Adjustment: Ibaka being in the game changes everything. The defensive adjustment for the Thunder is obvious but offensively Ibaka also helps out immensely. The Thunder have been starting three non-offensive players in Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, and Kendrick Perkins. By inserting Ibaka back into the mix, the team gets deeper and they get someone who can put the ball in the basket in a way the Spurs struggle to defend. He's a great safety valve on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook drives. He can knock down the midrange jumper, has a decent 3-point shot, and he's one of the best big men in the league at diving to the basket for drop-off passes and dunks.

5. The Big Story: Are the Thunder going to make this a series if Ibaka is relatively healthy? It's probably unfair to hope for him to be near 100 percent but if he's able to give it a go and have an impact on the game, the Thunder could go from being overwhelmed by the brilliant Spurs' attack to doing the overwhelming. This is a match-up the Thunder have dominated for a couple seasons now, but they needed a full complement of players to get it done. They looked dead in the water just a few days ago after the embarrassing loss in Game 2, but they might finally have some life in this series.

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