Remember when people were saying things after Game 2 like, "Serge Ibaka doesn't make a 35-point difference"?
Well, after the Oklahoma City Thunder's 105-92 rout of the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 to even up the series at 2-2, something has clearly been different.
It's easy to point to Ibaka, and his presence inside continues to alter the Spurs' offense so much so that they look nothing like they did in the first two games. But the real story of Game 4, as it tends to be in most Thunder wins, was Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
The Spurs got out to a fast start, jumping to a 12-4 lead five minutes into the game. Then the Thunder clamped down and played a brand of basketball that has come to define them, particularly against these Spurs. Ibaka's interior presence began disrupting seemingly every shot at the rim, and the Thunder's length and athleticism began bothering the passes Spurs players were making to avoid shots at the rim.
A big part of the spark came from Jeremy Lamb, who was inserted early after Reggie Jackson badly rolled his right ankle. Lamb recorded three steals in a four-minute stretch, while the Thunder defense as a whole began making Spurs' shots that much more difficult. It led to easy transition opportunities and an entirely new game.
Capitalizing on that defensive energy, too, was Westbrook, who played arguably the best game of his career. His offense was on, which is always key, but a lot of it came from his defense. His on-ball pressure was relentless, as he forced not only steals, but difficult drives that allowed other Thunder defenders to get their hands in the driving lanes as well.
The knock on Westbrook is usually that he is out of control, but he managed to have his fingerprints all over the first half (and the second half, for that matter, more on that in a second), largely by just dominating every facet of the game. Oh, he didn't turn it over once in the first half, either.
Also playing in the Thunder's favor was the fact that they had the MVP of the league to go alongside Ibaka, Lamb, Westbrook, and everyone else. Kevin Durant, too, had a big second quarter, and also cut back on his turnovers, not turning it over once the entire game. As Westbrook's defense sparked the Thunder, Durant was there on offense to hit big shots to extend the lead to 15 by halftime.
Durant finished the first half 9-12 for 22 points, the efficient explosion that the Thunder had been waiting for.
From there, it was a matter of maintaining the lead, which the Thunder somewhat struggled to do against the Spurs bench unit. After pushing the lead to as much as 25, Gregg Popovich called off the dogs and let his second unit create some energy.
It led to some inspired play for the Spurs - maybe the most they've had since Game 2 - but the lead never got below 12 as the Thunder kept finding just enough offense to keep the scrappy second unit at bay.
The Spurs will undoubtedly take that stretch of high-energy basketball back to San Antonio to build upon for Game 5. For the Thunder, the Spurs' effort meant no rest for the starters as Westbrook played 45 minutes, Durant 41, Ibaka 35.
That's a nice tidbit for the Spurs to hold onto, but don't forget this is a Thunder team that has blown big leads already this postseason (see: Game 4 vs. LAC) and bounced back without a problem.
Through it all, it's a 2-2 series and the Spurs still have homecourt advantage. But with Ibaka back, the Thunder seems whole again. And just like that, this series gets more and more interesting.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
The Thunder really showed just how they can dominate the Spurs at will. Yes, the bench made a late run, and maybe the energy is something the Spurs will give more of as a whole in Game 5. But it's hard to look at that stretch from the second and third quarters and not see just how much more athletic the Thunder is than the Spurs.
It's now seven straight over San Antonio with Ibaka in the lineup, and stretches like tonight's mid-game run are a nice indication why. Ibaka is that final piece, the one that ensures the Spurs simply can't keep up the pace with the Thunder. With Ibaka on the floor - along with Westbrook and Durant, obviously - the Thunder is able to lock in on defense and force difficult shots. All of that leads to long rebounds and an up-and-down game, where the Thunder's young, athletic legs are too much for the old Spurs to keep up with.
It may be in part why the Spurs' second unit looked so effective, because they actually had fresh legs to keep up and neutralize the attack a little bit. But it's in those moments, the ones when OKC makes big runs, where you see the advantage on full display.
As long as Ibaka's leg holds up, you have to like the Thunder's chances of reaching that point a couple more times this series. Those runs are just too much for the Spurs to match, no matter who is on the floor.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
Let's talk a little more about Russell Westbrook, shall we? Remember, there is a narrative that still exists that suggests Westbrook is too inefficient and the Thunder would be better off without him. It's outrageous, but it's there.
Well, look at his statline: 40-10-5-5-1. DOMINANT.
You hate to have to harp on it over and over every time he plays well, but these are the games where Westbrook is irreplaceable. There aren't five other players in the league that can bring that type of energy and channel it in such a way that is so lethal. The defense, the points, the ASSISTS, it was an incredible all-around performance.
Ibaka's return reinvigorated the defense and has helped the Thunder settle in on that end, but Westbrook's relentlessness has just as much of an effect on the team. The crowd feeds off of it, his teammates feed off of it, and it can demoralize an opponent.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The Thunder had 12 steals and 8 blocks. The Spurs had just 4 steals and 2 blocks. The Thunder as a whole turned it over just seven times, which is almost unheard of by Thunder standards.
That protection of the ball, combined with the obvious defensive energy that led to such a disparity, completely shaped the way this game played out. The Thunder made the defensive plays that not only denied points and ended possessions, but led to easy transition points on the other end.
It was Westbrook's career postseason high in steals, Lamb was one shy of his career-high of four (and again, he got those three in about four minutes), and the Thunder defense stayed active throughout.
It added up to OKC outscoring San Antonio 21-0 on the fast break, which is an astounding number and one that illustrates just how superior OKC was in creating those opportunities, and just how effective the offense was in nullifying those same opportunities for the Spurs.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
You don't want to get too carried away because, as mentioned, the Spurs still maintain homecourt advantage and just need to protect that homecourt to advance.
Still, it's getting to the point where you can't overlook OKC's success against the Spurs of late when they have a healthy lineup. As I talked about, there's something about these games where they go back and forth to start, but then the Thunder simply wear them down with physical interior defense and sheer athleticism in the open court.
That's a recipe to beat a veteran team like the Spurs, and there's no way the Thunder don't feel like they have their swagger back after getting back to full health (assuming Jackson's ankle roll isn't too serious).
We have a series on our hands, and with how dominant OKC has looked with Ibaka, San Antonio should feel lucky the injury took him out for Games 1 and 2, or the series could already be over.
- RUSSELL WESTBROOK POSTGAME OUTFIT WATCH: GAME 4
- Grade: A-. I'm a sucker for weird patterns with excessive color... you know, the style that has come to exemplify Russell Westbrook.
- Just when you thought OKC may get some swagger back, this happened:
- After that injury though, and a quick Spurs bucket, OKC went on a 7-0 run. It was largely spurred by Lamb's length and energy, where he got a steal, hit free throws, gathered an offensive rebound, and energized the entire building.
- Speaking of an energized building, I don't know that there's a better match than a jazzed-up OKC crowd and Russell Westbrook in transition looking for one of his patented pull-ups.
- Lamb is still playing really well.
- When the Thunder recognize they are faster, longer, and more athletic than the Spurs, you get 13-2 runs like the one at the end of the first quarter. It started by using all of those skills to keep Parker out of the key, and just neutralized the entire SA offense from there.
- Thing Reggie Miller actually said: "Kevin Durant is a professional scorer." Please reconsider your coaching decision, Steve Kerr. Don't leave us with this!
- You can't overstate how much of an impact Ibaka has on defense. So many altered shots, and the Spurs clearly play differently with him in there. That led to the sloppy play and transition opportunities. Incredible defensive effort in the first half from everyone, but it all starts with Serge setting the tone.
- Russell Westbrook went absolutely nuclear in that second quarter. Coming up with steals, completing his drives, passing to KD for threes, it was one of the best Westbrook quarters I can ever remember seeing.
- Manu Ginobili always hits the most annoyingly timely shots. Big three toward the end of the half to keep the Thunder from completely pulling away.
- It's halftime so I have time to go deeper into the Twitter discussion, and it's amazing how many people are surprised at this OKC performance. Did they watch the four regular season games? Or any of the games when Serge was healthy, for that matter? I know it's regular season, but OKC legitimately dominated those games. The Spurs just aren't athletic enough to overcome the Thunder attack when it's firing on all cylinders.
- Jeremy Lamb: +17 in 12 first half minutes. Made Reggie's injury muchhhhhh easier to cope with.
- Tim Duncan can not score on Serge Ibaka. He can't.
- Two games in a row Perkins has done that "put the ball down hard with two hands and then finish." That's a big man move!
- Westbrook staring down the Spurs after that baseline dunk in the third must be infuriating for Spurs fans. It's why we love him!
- If we learned anything from the first two rounds of this postseason, it's that no lead is safe. The Spurs bench unit, led by Cory Joseph (?!) and Boris Diaw, chipped away and cut the lead down to 16 headed into the fourth. No relaxing in these playoffs.
- STOP WITH THE PUPPETS DIRECTV I CAN'T SLEEP ANYMORE!
- Through 3 quarters: Spurs 67, Westbrook/Durant 57. The little things, San Antonio.
- Matt Bonner drove to the rim at the start of the fourth quarter. You could say the Thunder took their foot off the gas a little.
- Brooks put Ibaka back in when the lead shrunk to 14 in the fourth. I get the reasoning, but awfully risky. Gotta like the fact that Ibaka didn't seem bothered by it, though.
- So the only guy that can beat Serge at the rim is Cory Joseph. Got it.
- I know they look absolutely nothing alike, but I mix up Jeff Ayres and Aron Baynes a lot. I blame the Y.
- Probably the best Westbrook game we've ever seen. All of the energy was channeled perfectly and he was a supernova of defensive energy and offensive tenacity. San Antonio has no one that can match him when he's like that. He did play 46 minutes, though. Something to keep an eye on.
- Love the standing ovation he got, too. OKC fans love Westbrook through thick and thin. Games like this make it impossible not to.
RT @ESPNStatsInfo Russell Westbrook: first player with 40 pts, 10 rebounds and 5 steals in a playoff game since Michael Jordan in 1989
Russell postgame: "When we use our athleticism, use our size, use our strength, we are in a good position." pic.twitter.com/WEEs3L9mbj— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 28, 2014
That looks really painful pic.twitter.com/qqlr2ghRJ5— Jason Damiano (@JDonSports) May 28, 2014
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook: 40 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, +14
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant: 31 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 steals
Thunder Blunder: Reggie Jackson's ankle: Get Well Soon
Thunder Plunderer: Boris Diaw: 14 points, 10 rebounds
Next game: @ San Antonio Spurs for Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday, May 29 at 8:00 PM CDT