Back home and fully loaded, Thunder have new life in West finals
The Oklahoma City Thunder finally found like in this series behind the return of Serge Ibaka and the improved play of their role players.
In the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs looked to be just far too experienced and explosive for the Oklahoma City Thunder to hang with after the first two games. With the Spurs' Game 2 win over the Thunder in that series, they were on a 20-game winning streak and looking like a buzzsaw cutting down everything that stepped in front of its path. The Thunder weren't overmatched, necessarily, but they were in desperate need of a change.
In Game 3 of that series, the Thunder seemed to figure out how to harness their athleticism and use it properly against the Spurs. They held San Antonio under 40 percent shooting in the win and blocked nine shots on the night. The Thunder took total control of that matchup and haven't really had to look back against the Spurs since. That was until Serge Ibaka went down with a calf injury in the first two games of the 2014 Western Conference Finals, and OKC was back at square one with the Spurs.
Once again in a Game 3 between these two teams, the Thunder found new life in their 106-97 win. This time, it was the return of a hobbled Ibaka to the lineup and Scott Brooks switching up his rotations a bit to capitalize on Oklahoma City's athleticism advantage. Ibaka came in and right away had an impact on the floor by hitting shots and blocking others away. But it was the change in the lineup that seemed to put the Spurs on their heels and allow for OKC's role players to step up and stars to step forward.
While Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha have often been useful role players for the Thunder, they struggled quite a bit in the first two games of this series. Ibaka's return moved Collison to the bench and Brooks inserted Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup to give the Thunder more playmaking on the floor. Collison and Sefolosha ended up sitting the entire game as Brooks looked to Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams for heavier minutes. With the offense spread and more energy in the Thunder's attack, it allowed them to have the space for Caron Butler and Derek Fisher to have solid contributions as well.
This is what the Thunder fans and pundits have been wanting from Brooks and his team. The ability to be versatile in decisions and make adjustments against the opponent to make them adjust. The Thunder aren't going to beat the Spurs with execution unless it comes with a heaping helping of athleticism along the way. This has been their formula for taking down the Spurs since they went down 0-2 in the 2012 conference finals.
The Thunder overwhelmed the Spurs at times and seemed to break them down quite a bit. They blocked 10 shots in this game with four coming from Ibaka. The Spurs shot under 40 percent from the field just like in Game 3 of the 2012 series. And we saw a total team effort from the Thunder as they were aggressive both in scoring inside and getting to the free-throw line.
Instead of looking dead to rights in this series, the Thunder look like they can actually win it. There is a lot that still has to go their way. They will have to win Game 4, and then it becomes a best of three with two games in San Antonio the rest of the way. Ideally for the Thunder, they'd have to run off the next three games and finish it out in six. It would replicate the turn in the series and the aftermath of all that happened in 2012. That's getting far ahead of ourselves by thinking about things playing out the same way, and the Thunder certainly have to win the next game before those thoughts start creeping in.
But history has a tendency to repeat itself, and more importantly so does the matchup advantage the Thunder possess when they are able to use their athleticism against the Spurs. How Ibaka responds with just one day of rest in between games instead of the week-plus he had to prepare for Game 3 will be huge in how the rest of this series plays out. The Spurs will want to execute both ends of the floor much more competently and not let the athleticism difference be exploited.
For the Thunder, this was a big reset button push for them. Their Game 3 victory looks familiar, but it will be on them to figure out how to make the rest of the series look like déjà vu.
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