The San Antonio Spurs looked like an unstoppable force in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals.
They blew out the Oklahoma City Thunder by a combined total of 52 points in the opening bouts and ran out 2-0 leaders in the series. However, Oklahoma City held homecourt and have come back to level the series at two apiece.
While it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that they have clawed their way back – after all, they are the second best team in the NBA, according to the regular season standings - though the manner in which they have done so, should.
In Games One and Two, San Antonio dominated in the paint, scoring 66 points and 54 points respectively, en route to blow out victories as well as a 2-0 series lead. In Games three and four though, the figures dwindled to just 40 and 36 points at the Chessapeake Arena.
So what changed? Two words...
The OKC shot blocking specialist has made going into the paint a hazardous trip since his return. He swats away anything in close proximity or alters shots at very least - making it difficult operate in the the paint.
His presence has also made the Spurs’ typically aggressive, and efficient, attackers think twice before entering the lane.
Tony Parker, a fearless point guard who basically lives in the paint, appeared somewhat tentative in Game Three and he finished the game with just 9 points on 4-of-12 shooting. Meanwhile Tim Duncan, one of the game’s all-time greats in the paint, didn’t even want to roll into the lane which led to a burst up with Gregg Popovich.
You could argue it was simply a case of Duncan choosing to mix it up a little bit to make a change from your bog standard pick and roll, which is understandable. Although, you also have to question whether Ibaka patrolling the middle had any impact on his decision making.
While Ibaka’s presence has affected every single one of the San Antonio Spurs, no one embodies that fear more so than Tiago Splitter. From the looks of things, he has gotten to the point where he doesn’t even want to shoot anymore. On several occasions he has been merely four feet away from the basket but opted to dump the ball to Duncan instead. As if to say: “Nope, I don’t want to get blocked. You take the ball.”
Granted San Antonio likely won’t win or lose based on the points provided by Splitter, but he is still a starter and key player. Besides, every little bit of extra help could go a long way, especially in times like these when the team as a whole isn’t playing well and confidence is low.
OKC got their spark when Ibaka returned but unfortunately San Antonio doesn’t have anyone coming back. So perhaps revamping the opening line-up would do the trick.
Swapping Boris Diaw for Splitter in the starting five would add a versatile bigman who is great passer and is able to knock down outside shots. Not consistently, but enough to warrant the defense giving him a little extra attention.
Popvich could also go with Matt Bonner who is a career 42 percent shooter from 3point land. His presence would garner a lot of respect, thus keep either of the Thunder bigs away from the paint. That means there would be some more room to for Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobilli to operate inside the lane.
Nevertheless, San Antonio needs to find a way to find their wits about them, and do so quickly. If not, we could be witness to yet another collapse. Just as they did in 2012.
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