2014 Western Conference Finals: The Impact of Ibaka

Ibaka (9) has tilted this series in the Thunder's favor. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ibaka (9) has tilted this series in the Thunder’s favor. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

In a  matter of less than a week, the Oklahoma City Thunder have risen from the ashes of playoff irrelevancy.

Exposed by two crushing defeats–with an average losing margin of 26–to the San Antonio Spurs in the first two contests of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder appeared doomed for an exit. Yet after shifting to the raucous confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena, the series dramatically leveled out 2-2–and not necessarily for the efforts of two of the top four NBA postseason scorers, stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Instead, it was the Congolese rim-patroller Serge Ibaka, once deemed out for the rest of the season due to a calf injury, that returned and impacted the series in a way that now has the Thunder in the driver’s seat for a second Finals berth in three years.

Defensively, Ibaka’s insertion back into the lineup has wreaked havoc on San Antonio’s plan of attack. On the other end of the court, his presence as a contending offensive force has benefited his own team. And though his influence on the series has been most perceptible in the paint, it has actually spread out to and affected the perimeter space of the floor as well.

The core of the Spurs’ offensive prowess–comprising Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Manu Ginobili–averaged 81.5 points in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio, and collectively shot .533 from the field. But following Ibaka’s arrival, that scoring output plunged to an average of 53.5 in Games 3 and 4, and the five posted a .393 FG%. That should come as no surprise, as Ibaka is one of the best defensive players in the league. In addition, he also contributed to an increase in OKC block totals: a mere 6 in the first two games to 18 in the last pair.

Ibaka situates himself primarily in the paint, and accordingly, points in the paint (PITP) from the opposition more precisely illustrate his defensive impact. The table below shows the PITP totals from the aforementioned “big 5” of sorts for San Antonio.

Game 1

Game 2 1 and 2 avg. Game 3 Game 4

3 and 4 avg.

Parker

10

16 13 6 10

8

Duncan

20

8 14 12 4

8

Ginobili

8

2 5 2 0

1

Leonard

10

4 7 6 2

4

Green

2

0 1 0 0

0

For all five of San Antonio’s most important players and leaders, PITP averages fell going from their home set of games to the away set. Of course, for the players that habitually net a good chunk of their points near the basket, a dropoff in this category becomes far more meaningful. Thus, the stark decline in around-the-rim production from Tim Duncan–a consensus unmatched post-presence during his 17-year NBA career–and from Tony Parker–whose drives to the basket often dictate a game’s outcome–further exhibits the magnitude of Ibaka’s impact on the paint.

Ibaka also managed to indirectly diminish San Antonio’s perimeter shooting, evident by the progression of Spurs shooting guard Danny Green’s series performance (as one example). Ibaka’s ability to effectively patrol the low block on D eliminated the need for help defense in that area from the likes of Durant, Westbrook, and other guards. Consequently, it freed his non-post teammates to remain on the perimeter and channel more of their defensive efforts to restraining San Antonio shooting. So in the case of Green, while he scored 16 points (on 6-7 shooting) in Game 1 and 21 points (7-11) in Game 2, the guard reached just 8 points (3-12) in Game 3 and sunk to 3 (1-4) in Game 4.

At a more game-total level, the table  below (team PITP totals) displays how the battle in the paint swung emphatically to OKC’s advantage with Ibaka back in the lineup.

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4
SAS 66 54 40 36
OKC 32 42 46 44

Moreover, Games 3 and 4 show not only a fall in San Antonio’s PITP totals, but also a sizable increase in that of Oklahoma City–meaning Ibaka, esteemed mainly for his defensive superiority, extended his range of impact to the offensive end to some degree, establishing himself on the glass.

Ibaka's return has led to better numbers from teammates like Durant (35). (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ibaka’s return has led to better numbers from teammates like Durant (35). (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

While Ibaka himself did not perform spectacularly on offense, his return might have improved conditions for the dynamic duo he plays alongside: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Developing from a raw offensive talent over the past few years, Ibaka is no player to take lightly on offense now, having efficiently integrated himself within an already electric Thunder attack. His presence on this side of the court frees Durant and Westbrook up and opens key space for them, perhaps explaining their improvement in play with Ibaka back on the floor in Games 3 and 4. Durant experienced an increase in points per game moving from the first set of games to the next set (21.5 to 28), as did Westbrook (20 to 33). And while the field-goal percentage of Durant only rose slightly from 0.457 to .463 in the same comparison of games, that of Westbrook surged from 0.356 to .456. And though this speculative effect resulting from Ibaka’s return is not easily measurable, there’s no questioning that his impact has pervaded the basketball court.

Furthermore, factoring in on both ends of the court, Ibaka’s presence radically altered the rebounding totals as the series progressed. Without him in Games 1 and 2, the Thunder were out-rebounded 40-37 and 53-38 by the Spurs, respectively. That’s a jump from a 43.3 regular season average to 46.5 in the first two games for San Antonio, and a dip from 44.7 during the season to 37.5 for Oklahoma City. Of course, this dominance on the boards changed upon Ibaka’s return, as OKC controlled the glass with a rebounding margin of 52-36 in Game 3, and 42-41 in Game 4.

Of course, it’s also important to note that the disparate quality of play between the first two games and the latter two from OKC and SAS result in some part from location: both squads, and particularly the Thunder, thrive at their home arenas. Nevertheless, the return of a premier NBA player to a team incomplete without him is just as, if not more, influential.

Though Ibaka has averaged a modest 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in his two games, the significance of his presence in the lineup is best quantifiable by his impact on nearly every other facet of the matchup: the effect on individual Spurs players, on his fellow teammates, and on game totals. Ibaka’s influence may loom largest with respect to the last of those reasons, as at the moment he seems destined to serve as the deciding factor in the most important statistic in a series: wins.

 

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