The Oklahoma City Thunder were easily beaten by the San Antonio Spurs in the first two games of the 2014 Western Conference Finals despite having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at full strength. But the Thunder also played without center Serge Ibaka, who was out with a calf strain. When Ibaka returned in Game 3, the Thunder beat the Spurs 106-97, holding San Antonio below 100 points for the first time in the series. So does this mean that Ibaka’s defense is more valuable than Durant and Westrbook’s offense?
Let’s find out:
Shutting Down the Shooters
In the first two games, the Thunder tried to outgun the Spurs. But the Spurs have more weapons. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard were making huge offensive contributions. In game 3, their combined points total was the lowest in the series:
|Total Points||Three Point Field Goals made|
No, it wasn’t Ibaka who guarded both of them. But with Ibaka manning the middle, the other defenders can play honest defense on their man without having to worry about the middle. And Ibaka is also a good close out defender.
Serge Ibaka is a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive First team in 2012 and 2013. He is sure to be on the 2014 team as well. He led the NBA in blocked shots two years ago. This season, he finished a close second to Charlotte’s Anthony Davis. Serge Ibaka is one of the NBA’s best shot blockers and he doesn’t just block shots, he alters them.
In the first two games of the series, the Spurs were averaging 60 points in the paint. During the regular season, OKC was just yielding 39.5 points in the paint per game. And while the Spurs went to town during the first two games, Ibaka and the Thunder held them at bay in Game 3. OKC outscored San Antonio in the paint 46-40.
In Game 1, The Thunder were outrebounded 37-40. In Game 2, the Spurs dominated OKC 53-38 off the boards. With Ibaka back in Game 3, the Thunder won the battle of rebounds 52-36. The Spurs won the battle of the blocks in the first two games by a total of 9-6. In Game 3, Ibaka had four shot blocks and OKC lorded it over the Spurs 10-2.
The Difference Maker
Oklahoma City’s defense is Serge Ibaka, at least against the Spurs this season. The Thunder are 5-0 with him playing and are 0-2 when Ibaka was out with injury. And it’s not only been his shot blocking and rebounding that has been crucial for OKC, it’s the intensity that he brings each time he steps on the court. Ibaka is definitely a game changer and difference maker for Oklahoma City. Take a look at this very interesting piece of information from ESPN.com:
Thunder Stats this season vs Spurs with and without Serge Ibaka:
|On the court||Off the Court|
The difference is unbelievable. The Thunder are a totally different team with and without Serge Ibaka manning the middle.
Offense Wins Games, Defense Wins Championships
During the regular season, Kevin Durant won MVP honors with his spectacular offensive display. Durant torched the nets with 32.0 points per game and .503 FG shooting. Westbrook averaged 21.8 points per game on .437 FG shooting. In the playoffs, Durant has averaged 30.1 points while Westbrook is doing 25.7 points per game. But their field goal percentages have dropped. Durant is shooting just .454 and Westbrook .416 from the field. Obviously, the opposing teams are playing much tougher and better defense in the playoffs.
In Game 1, Durant and Westbrook combined for 53 points and they still lost the game. In Game 2, the duo combined for 30 points and the Thunder also lost. In Game 3, they totaled 51 points and OKC won. This does not mean that their scoring is not important. OKC needs these two stars to score. But the point is that there is no consistent pattern between the duo’s points per game and wins or losses.
However, there is a season long pattern between defense and playoff wins. An old basketball cliché says that offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
Kevin Durant led all Thunder players during the regular season in win shares per 48 minutes with .295. Russell Westbrook came in second at .178 while Serge Ibaka was a close third at .173. In the playoffs, Durant and Ibaka are now tied with .151 win shares per 48 minutes, while Westbrook is third at .139.
There is no denying that Kevin Durant is a superstar among superstars. He deserves the regular season MVP award. But it’s the playoffs, and right now it’s defense that matters, and that’s why Serge Ibaka is the key to winning it all for the Thunder.