SAN ANTONIO – Serge Ibaka had a good look at what went on during the fourth quarter of Game 1 in the Western Conference finals.
He could see Tony Parker dart into the lane and practically bring down rain with those 10- to 12-foot floaters. He could see Tiago Splitter go to his left, go to his right, gather rebounds and loose balls and put them in for layups. He could see Tim Duncan roll to the front of the rim and see Manu Ginobili make all of those singular herky-jerky moves that would produce back-breaking buckets.
Ibaka, a first team All-Defensive selection, had an unobstructed view of it all from his front row perch on the bench of the Thunder. While the Spurs scored 16 points in the point and rallied from nine points down in the fourth quarter to take a 101-98 win on Sunday night, Ibaka had the best – or worst – seat in the house. The 6-foot-10 jumping jack did not play a single minute of the final minute as San Antonio repeatedly took the ball inside and took the game.
“I wasn’t surprised, because last night wasn’t the first time we’ve been doing this. It was a coach’s decision,” Ibaka said very diplomatically at Monday’s practice. “That’s what it is. I am not surprised because we have been doing it all season.”
While it’s true that Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks has often gone to a small lineup to take advantage of a speed and quickness mismatch when Kevin Durant moves to the power forward spot, this appeared to be a situation when it backfired. The Thunder were never able to take advantage of Durant at the offensive end and left themselves vulnerable on defense to the Spurs repeatedly attacking the basket.
“When we win, nobody ever says, ‘Why did you play him?’ ” Brooks said with a shrug. “When it doesn’t work out, you always think about another option. It was nothing against Serge. I felt that we had success in the past and I thought we had enough defense out there because they were playing small. They had three 3-point shooters out on the floor and it’s hard to put Serge in the game. I have to make that decision and live with it. But it wasn’t anything against Serge.”
The Thunder used the same small lineup in the fourth quarter of the Game 5 clincher against the Lakers in the previous round of the playoffs. But going small there puts the burden on a big front line of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and forces L.A. to either go away from a strength or try to keep up. With a deeper roster, the Spurs have more options for success and were already playing small.
Ibaka had already blocked two shots and changed a handful of others in the first three quarters and often had the Spurs thinking twice about even venturing into the lane.
“We definitely gave up a lot of points around the basket,” Brooks conceded. “I don’t know if fatigue was a factor. Ginobili was making a lot of those special plays that he’s made in his career. He probably just had his best game in the playoffs and he had it against us.”
The question remains whether Ginobili could have had that kind of game and finish if the Thunder hadn’t held open the door.
“It’s not really about that,” Ibaka said. “They were just playing really good. It’s not me or Perk (Kendrick Perkins). We just need to do a better job of stopping the ball out from getting into the paint. We were worried too much because we know they are a very good 3-point team. We need to stop ball outside.
“It is coach’s decision. He knows better than me. It just depends. Sometimes he goes with Perk small and sometimes he goes with me small. Sometimes he goes with Nick (Collison). It’s how he feels, how he sees the game going on. It’s not how I see it.”
But it was where Ibaka saw it – from the bench – that might have mattered most in the Thunder letting Game 1 slip away.