As Tony Parker took jumpers before Game 3, a smug half-smile came across his face every time he released the ball. This is a man who is as slick as a bar of soap, smoother than the old guy in those Dos Equis commercials, and happens to be running the most elite, complex NBA offense of the past decade, so his confidence is certainly warranted.
However, when Parker lost Russell Westbrook on a pick and roll midway through the third quarter, turned on the jets, scooped the ball towards the backboard, and began winking at someone’s wife before turning in disbelief as Serge Ibaka plucked his shot out of the air, that confidence may have taken a substantial hit.
Ibaka’s miraculous return from an obscure calf muscle injury had tremendous tangible effects on Sunday night’s contest. He set the tone by spacing the floor offensively in the first quarter, denied Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan in the paint, and started to make Parker and other Spurs doubt themselves once they got into the paint, yet what is truly miraculous is the mental impact his return seemed to have for the Thunder.
Baseball is a game of adjustments, Football is all about Xs and Os, yet there may not be any sport quite as influenced by the mythical notion of momentum as Basketball. The Thunder spent most of the last two games in San Antonio hanging their heads, or barking at each other. They scraped through the first two rounds by watching two superstars take turns and call it “offense,” and their head coach looked hopelessly outmatched by the ruthlessly efficient Gregg Popovich.
Amazingly, Scott Brooks made adjustments by starting Reggie Jackson and shortening his rotations to avoid having both Durant and Westbrook on the bench at the same time. The Thunder used their athleticism to close out on three-point shooters and limited the Spurs to 39 percent shooting after they shot 54 percent from the field in San Antonio. And of course, a surprisingly nimble Ibaka forced those Spurs to think twice as their average field goal attempt came from 16.4 feet with him on the court, and 7.8 feet while he was not in the game.
Yet the most telling statistic when it comes to EFFORT, is rebounding, and after getting dominated on the glass in the first two games, Oklahoma City out-rebounded the defending Western Conference champs 52 to 36. Ibaka had 7 of those rebounds, and just 15 points on 7 shots, but the galvanizing effect of his return, combined with the practical impact made by Reggie Jackson in 36 minutes of play allowed the Thunder to resemble something unfamiliar in these playoffs- a team.
Spurs beat writers say that 2012, when the young Thunder roared back from a 2-0 deficit to knock the veterans out of the playoffs, looms large in the players’ minds. Well, now that Ibaka is patrolling the paint, the Thunder are moving the ball on offense, and Scott Brooks is deploying freakishly athletic lineups (example = Jackson, Westbrook, Jeremy Lamb, Durant, Steven Adams) there should be a seed of doubt in the Spurs locker room.
If Tony Parker is losing even an ounce of his smug confidence, San Antonio fans have reason to be worried.