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.

 

Chemistry, Hot-shooting, and a Blowout: Heat-Spurs Game 3 Recap

Heat team dynamic

For all the scrutiny surrounding LeBron James’ supporting cast in these playoffs, the superstar MVP finally received a considerable amount of assistance on Tuesday night. The ailing Dwayne Wade got off to a fantastic start, and after several efficient trips on the offensive end, the shooting guard frankly should have shouldered more of the ball control. Wade’s shot and distributive efforts were spot on to begin the night, a surprising and reassuring effort that could not be paralleled by his fellow teammate, LeBron, who converted on one measly 6-foot jumper at the 3:24 mark in all of the 1st quarter action. The MVP went on to net only 2 more points in the 1st half, and along with 4 assists, marked a gruesome 1st-half performance.

Wade’s production waned as the game progressed, but the fault is not necessarily directed at him. Chris Bosh prolonged his struggle on Tuesday, meaning Wade would receive all the defensive attention. Yet had LeBron averted his passive attitude (literally and figuratively), he may have provided essential support for Wade that would undoubtedly aid both of their play for the rest of the game. Even the sharp-shooting Mike Miller, as well as the ball of energy that is Norris Cole, pitched in valuable efforts in the first 2 1/2 quarters that kept Miami in the game–in spite of LeBron’s no-show. One could only imagine how Game 3 might have turned out if LeBron actually played like himself: the unstoppable, MVP force that takes control of contests like no other.

Shooting Spurs

If you happen to dabble in fantasy basketball, you couldn’t say the performances of Danny Green and Gary Neal were TOO surprising: their three-point totals and explosive scoring stretches caught many an eye during the regular season. Nevertheless, the play of Green and Neal on Tuesday is one for the ages, and certainly meets the lofty standards of Spurs playoff lore. The barrage of 3’s en route to taking a 2-1 series lead resonates on a level beyond the stat sheet, as it ignited an oftentimes dormant San Antonio crowd. With the majority of the punishing damage coming in the 3rd quarter, Green/Neal combined to shoot 18 for 32 (56%), and a gaudy 13 for 19 (68%) beyond the arc. Perhaps most importantly, their stellar performances nicely made up for mediocre play from their fellow teammates: the terrific trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, who surprisingly could only muster a paltry 10-23 combined shooting night. The three veterans could only convert on 1-5 3-PT field goals, and even went a horrid 4-9 at the charity stripe.

Keep in mind that these faces of the Spurs franchise are about as good as it gets as making adjustments from game to game, which will come of use in the NBA finals: in other words, don’t expect any more low-key performances from the trio, who will also definitely play more than 30 minutes in the coming games (a mark none of the three surpassed on Tuesday). And even if Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili don’t regroup in time to establish a significant impact on the series, they faithfully leave the reigns in young, potent (as we saw Game 3) hands.

Observations in a blowout

Perhaps Gregg Popovich was trying to send a message, through–gasp–allowing for his players to have a little fun by piling on the score in the 3rd quarter. Or maybe Miami already had one step outside of the AT&T Center and had no intentions on looking back until Thursday. Or it may have been that the explosive Danny Green/Gary Neal tandem was divinely possessed, and the continual onslaught of 3-pointers were simply a natural feat. Whatever the case may be, the blowout witnessed on Tuesday seemed a bit different.

Usually, in an telepathic act of mutual consent, opposing coaches take out their players–and toss out their will to compete any longer–once the scoring margin exceeds 20. But once a blowout was brewing towards the latter part of the 3rd quarter, the Spurs attack on the basket hardly ceased, as it seemed natural for the basketball to glide into the hoop. In most cases, in games following a blowout, any notion of a huge disparity between two teams halts going into the next game. Of course, that comes after the 4th quarter (and maybe even some of the 3rd) instantly transforms into garbage time: stars are benched, the crowd calms down, and the excitement ventilating throughout the stadium evaporates. That was clearly not the case on Tuesday, as the home crowd fervor only grew towards the end of the game, corresponding with a growth in San Antonio’s lead. Perhaps this means the Spurs’ momentous, blowout victory could have lasting effects in this series, as the aura surrounding the NBA Finals series could shift towards San Antonio’s advantage.

Another lesser point in this Game 3 eruption is how the Spurs’ heroes conducted themselves in light of a Miami blowout just days earlier. The NBA world surely has gotten to know LeBron’s overpowering stuff of Tiago Splitter’s dunk attempt on Sunday night, a point that really highlighted the Heat blowout. James, instead of sprinting back on defense like a non-egotistical person, gladly soaked in the moment, as he pretentiously observed his surroundings and happily gloated. This provided a stark contrast from how the likes of Game 3 stars Danny Green and Gary Neal carried themselves. After each one of their crowd-arousing 3-point shots went through the net, Green and Neal immediately scampered back on defense, and kept a blank, but intensely focused, expression on their face. The most you could get out of Green at least was a grin and a jump or two (going into timeouts), occurring towards the end of his shooting streak.

This serves as yet another reason of why so many despise the Miami Heat and all that its brand constantly expresses. So much for LeBron being a changed man, and experiencing his “epiphany” (a story that graced a Sports Illustrated cover a year ago). And if that’s not what he included under “change”, he might want to reconsider what truly defines him not just as a basketball player, but as a person and role model.