By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO – Judging by how this Western Conference finals continues to unfold – bouncing from homecourt blowout to homecourt blowout — the Oklahoma City Thunder still may get a final shot to win a game here.
If they get that chance, though, they’ll have to pray for a miracle of the sort that brought the hobbled Serge Ibaka back in Game 3. But then, even the Ibaka magic faded Thursday night in San Antonio’s convincing 117-89 Game 5 win that gave the Spurs a 3-2 series lead.
For the first time in eight games with Ibaka on the floor — and for just the third time in the last 15 games dating to the 2012 West finals, when the Thunder stormed out of a 2-0 hole and blitzed San Antonio four in a row — the Spurs figured out how to beat Oklahoma City.
San Antonio’s AT&T Center, first without and now with Ibaka, has become a house of horrors for the Thunder. They’ve been crushed here by 17, 35 and 28 points in this series. Back home in OKC, the Thunder won Games 3 and 4 by a total of 22 points — though it could have been easily twice that much if not for some deficit-munching garbage-time.
“You really think I can explain that?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich quipped.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks was at a loss, too, to explain the home-court blowouts. Brooks was first to make a lineup change in Game 3, getting Ibaka back from his calf injury and sliding guard Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup. It worked like a charm to get the series even.
Popovich countered in Game 5, removing the big-bodied Tiago Splitter, who had allowed Ibaka to camp in the paint and keep Tony Parker out. Matt Bonner started, but it was Boris Diaw, with 13 points and three assists in 28 minutes, who was trouble all night, stringing Ibaka out and finally opening the operating space the Spurs enjoyed in their first two home routs.
Tim Duncan benefited with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, and Manu Ginobili was magnificent again with 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting. San Antonio’s 3-point shooters had a field day, going 13-for-26.
The Thunder returned to San Antonio expecting a change, yet oddly Ibaka said he didn’t find out the 3-point shooting Bonner was starting until Kevin Durant told him five minutes before the game, likely long after most of the silver-and-black clad fans in the arena had already gotten the message.
“It just changed their offense a little bit,” said Ibaka, who has noticed little change in the condition of his ailing left calf after playing his third game in five days. “For us it was kind of a surprise. But I’m not going to make an excuse to say ‘surprised.’ When you’re a basketball player, you have to be ready to play no matter what. Now our focus needs to be on the next game, and now we know how they will play and who will start now. So I’m sure we’ll be ready.”
Ibaka missed his looks early and finished 3-for-10 for six points. He was pulled out of his comfort zone in the paint, where the Spurs made good on 20 of their 28 shots. He had only two defensive rebounds in more than 27 minutes.
“It’s tough, it’s a tough loss for us and you need to give them a lot of credit,” Ibaka said. “They played their best basketball. They were better than us. They were more aggressive, but this happens sometimes.”
Nothing’s come easy in this second season for the Thunder, and nothing was harder than Game 5 back in the raucous River City.
“We just didn’t play well across the board on defense,” said Durant, who had 25 points on 11-for-21 shooting, but was again limited at the free-throw line on the road, taking just four making only one. “They spread us out, hit 3s and we were late. We were just a step slow.”
If there is a theme to Thunder’s postseason, it’s been bouncing back. Memphis had them against the wall, 3-2, and the Thunder won the next two. Against the Clippers, Oklahoma City rallied from seven points down with 49 seconds to play in Game 5 and won the series in six.
The good news for the Thunder is that Game 6 of this series is Saturday night back in OKC, where the Spurs have been as lost as the Thunder have been here. A win then for the Thunder sets up Game 7 on Monday, back in San Antonio, where the Spurs have now won seven straight by at least 15 points.
“Now we have to choose what we are going to give them,” Ibaka said. “… Are we going to give them the paint or … ? But I am sure we are going to do a better job in the next game.”
The season depends on it.