Breaking Down How Serge Ibaka’s Return Transformed The Thunder Defense

Richard A Rowe - NBAE/Getty Images

Richard A Rowe - NBAE/Getty Images

Richard A Rowe – NBAE/Getty Images

Serge Ibaka’s triumphant return to the starting lineup on Sunday night was about more than just X’s and O’s. It was, of course, about putting an end to the Spurs dominance in the paint and no longer allowing Tony Parker to do whatever he pleased. But it was also a source of hope with a dash of inspiration, provided to a wounded team that needed a boost in every sense of the word.

That said, the performances the Spurs put on display in the first two games made it very clear that the Thunder needed a lot more than some hope and inspiration. They needed the Serge Ibaka that has led the league in blocks each of the last 4 seasons. The one that led them to the team defensive performances required to win 10 of 12 games against the Spurs prior to the series; those same Spurs that have the best offensive scheme in the league. And Serge Ibaka delivered.

In game 1, the Spurs scored 66 points in the paint, which included making 24 of their 28 shots at the rim. Game 2 was much of the same, as the Spurs were able to add 54 more points in the paint in part through their ability to shoot 19 of 28 at the rim.

Enter Serge Ibaka. Game 3 was a clinic on how to prevent a team from scoring at the rim. The Spurs still hit a bunch of threes, but they made a relatively inefficient 15 of 28 at the rim, and totaled only 40 points in the paint:

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Tony Parker’s penetration killed the Thunder early in this series. He was able to waltz down the lane and make easy layups, dump-offs and kick outs as he desired. Parker turned the corner on every Thunder big man that he found himself matched up against, and it led to some easy layups (by his standards, these don’t look THAT easy):

The first step to preventing Tony Parker from doing what he wants to do is to contain him. Do not let him get to the hoop. This seems like common sense (because it is), but it isn’t that simple for a giant defender to contain a super-quick guard like Tony Parker. Especially when the Spurs system is designed to put him in these optimal situations. Throw a pick and roll at Serge Ibaka and he uses a combination of his length, athleticism and expert footwork to prevent Tony Parker from even getting to the corner, so he can’t begin to think about turning it:

Ibaka isn’t perfect, and sometimes the pick and roll gives Parker the step he needs to get past him. Moments like these make Serge Ibaka the great defender that he is. In the first of the two plays below, Ibaka blocks Parker as he goes for one of his reaching layups. In the second, Ibaka has forced Parker so far below the basket that he slips and falls out of bounds. Two Parker drives, zero Spurs points:

Tim Duncan was another source of those early Spurs points in the paint. When San Antonio was able to get him rolling to the basket after a pick and roll, Duncan was able to use one dribble to get by his recovering defender, and turn it into an easy layup. Even if the defender ended up in decent position, the shot couldn’t be truly contested due to the fact the Thunder didn’t have a great shot blocker manning the back line. Throwing your hands straight up isn’t a bad thing, but when a great player like Tim Duncan knows that’s the absolute best you can do, he’s going to make the easy shot:

Serge Ibaka has that next level, and Tim Duncan is well aware of it. If Duncan takes the same shot against Serge Ibaka – who is probably going to be in better position to start with – he can block it. The one dribble and shot against Ibaka after a pick and roll led to an awkward half floater, a shot that the Thunder are more than happy with Duncan taking:

Cutting down Tony Parker and Tim Duncan’s ability to get their shots is the primary way in which Serge Ibaka was able to help transform the Thunder defense back into the lengthy, suffocating unit that has bothered the Spurs over the past few seasons. Ibaka’s ability to continue to be effective will be vital if the Thunder want to continue their climb to the top of the NBA. Providing some hope and inspiration helps, too.

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