The Oklahoma City Thunder found a catalyst in Game 3 when Serge Ibaka decided to play through some serious pain and be the shot blocking presence he's known to be. While the San Antonio Spurs are one of the best offensive teams we've seen in a long time and know how to balance the paint and the 3-point line to maximize efficiency, they've had trouble navigating the paint when going up against Ibaka.
During the regular season, the Spurs were one of the most efficient teams around the restricted area. They finished at a clip of 64.8 percent inside, which was good for third in the NBA. When adjusting for pace, the Spurs were seventh in the NBA in points in the paint, which helped them balance the floor to be the best 3-point shooting team in the league at 39.7 percent. However, their stellar execution inside wasn't something that existed when Ibaka was on the court against them.
With Ibaka on the floor, the Spurs made just 45.7 percent of their shots in the restricted area this season. And through the first two games of the 2014 Western Conference finals when it looked like San Antonio was ready to steamroll the Thunder sans Ibaka, the Spurs made 68.7 percent of their shots around the rim and just poured on the points in the paint. It was evident right away when the Spurs dropped 40 points in the paint in the first half of Game 1.
Looking back on the match-up during the regular season, Ibaka patrolled the paint beautifully against San Antonio.
Ibaka is great at cutting off the first attempt around the rim and then recovering to block the shot once the dump-off pass is made. It allows the Thunder's perimeter defenders to play more aggressive defense in the hopes of forcing turnovers and getting quick points the other way when they do. If the Thunder perimeter defense gets broken down, Ibaka is almost always there to make the Spurs reconsider the best course of action.
At times it seems like Ibaka is daring guards into thinking they can get a quick layup off against him. He knows how to give the lane to the penetrating guard while still taking away everything at the same time. Guards will often hesitate against him because nobody wants the ball slapped back in their direction. He's able to patrol the paint, force passes, and then rely on his teammates to have his back, much like he has theirs.
Ibaka is so quick and has such an incredible second jump just waiting to explode to the release of the shot, he's almost a perfect weapon in defending the pick-and-roll. Even against San Antonio, they struggle to know when the right shot is available with him on the prowl. On this play above, he's cutting off the drive coming around the pick, he's recovering to the roller, he's cutting off the next dribble penetration to take away the shot, and then he's recovering to the big man inside to block the shot.
This isn't just a normal thing for great defenders around the league either. He's exceptional with his timing in situations like this and does the work to be consistently effective in it.
With Ibaka on the floor, he's seemingly always two steps away from contesting any shot that happens around the basket. That's the comfort his teammates have in defending a nearly impossible offensive system. If you can run the Spurs off the 3-point line and turn them into a driving team, you've taken away an incredibly efficient mode of scoring and are daring them to challenge Ibaka inside.
We saw the same thing in Game 3 when Ibaka showed helping his team win was more important than the pain shooting through his calf muscles. It's a terribly small sample size in this series but in the 30 minutes we saw Ibaka on the floor, the Spurs made just 45.5 percent of their shots in the restricted area. That's right in-line with what we saw from the impact we saw Ibaka have on the Spurs' offense throughout the regular season.
Taking a look at the blocked shots in Game 3 from Ibaka, you can see that even a less than fully healthy Ibaka controlled the paint in the same way he has this season:
This is the protection the Thunder craved and didn't have in the first two games. It's the protection that could keep their season alive as long as he's able to be as physically effective as we saw in Game 3. You can't expect Ibaka to be 100 percent healthy at any point in the remaining games of the playoffs, but if he can be what he was in Game 3, maybe we should expect to see him protecting the rim in the NBA Finals.