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Spurs-Thunder Game 4 Preview: Has the series turned?

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

Will the Spurs get sucked back in to history with Ibaka's return? (USATSI)
Will the Spurs get sucked back into history with Serge Ibaka's return? (USATSI)

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

Previewing Game 4 of the Spurs-Thunder Western Conference Finals.

1. The Facts: 9 p.m. ET (TNT). Follow the action here. All players are expected to play.

2. Where We Are: The San Antonio Spurs are up 2-1, but it feels a little like the series is just about even. The Spurs blitzed the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first two games. They lived in the paint, they bombed away from 3-point range, and they had the entire Thunder defense completely perplexed. On top of that, they stifled the OKC offense in Game 2 and turned them into a team that looked like it didn't really belong in the Western Conference Finals. It's something that's to be expected of the Spurs as they tend to treat most teams like they don't belong in the same class of basketball competition.

Game 3 was different though. Serge Ibaka returned from his calf injury and immediately made an impact. Scott Brooks took Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha out of the rotation and allowed a quicker, more athletic attack to form. Reggie Jackson gave the Thunder another creator, which opened up the offensive end of the floor for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka. The Thunder reminded the Spurs that the Thunder's athletic prowess was possibly too much for them, like we've seen over the last two years.

3. The Big Number: 39.5. That was the field goal percentage of the Spurs in Game 3. Oklahoma City blocked 10 shots, fueled by Ibaka's four. It was hauntingly similar to the Game 3 between these teams in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were up 2-0 going into Game 3 of that series and looked to be too much for any team to handle. They had just won 20 straight games including the regular season. Then the Thunder figured out how to maximize the impact of their athleticism against the Spurs.

In Game 3 in 2012, the Spurs shot 39.6 percent from the field and were blocked nine times. This is either a huge coincidence or a possible sign of things to come. The Thunder obviously need Ibaka to be as healthy as he was in Game 3, but perhaps they've figured out how to dominate the Spurs once again.

4. Key Adjustment: Find a way to make Serge Ibaka move a lot. The Spurs are so successful on offense because they find a way to get the defense moving side-to-side and wait for it to be too scrambled to make the next rotation. It's what all of the dribble penetration, kickout passes and perimeter ball movement creates. With Ibaka on the court the Spurs usually have the paint taken away, making the rest of their offense much less effective. But this isn't a healthy Ibaka; it's an Ibaka dealing with a lot of pain in his calf. If they keep attacking him, eventually they should be able to take advantage.

5. The Big Story: Is this history repeating itself? The Spurs have blown an 0-2 lead to the Thunder in the conference finals before and they could be on the verge of doing it again. It's still early in the series and a loss in Game 4 would put the Thunder into constant elimination games. San Antonio knows how to put the pressure on opponents in that way. And yet, we've seen the Thunder athleticism overwhelm this Spurs team before and it wouldn't be crazy to think it will happen again. The Spurs have never made the Finals in back-to-back seasons, so they could either buck history by doing it this year or they could let history consume them and blow the series to the Thunder once again.

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