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June 4, 2012
OKC Can't Rely on Game 4 Formula

by Bradford Doolittle


Everyone is still abuzz over Serge Ibaka's 11-for-11 performance that helped the Oklahoma City Thunder even the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs. And they should be -- Ibaka came within one shot of tying the NBA playoff record for most attempts in a perfect shooting night. Ibaka's shot chart is something to behold. He hit all five of his shots at the basket, all three from midrange and all three on long 2s.

Ibaka's partner in OKC's frontcourt, Kendrick Perkins, hit 7 of 9 from the floor, all but one of his field goals coming on short jump hooks at the rim. Nick Collison came off the bench to hit 4 of 5. Add it all up, and that's an amazing 22 of 25 from the floor for the Thunder big men. Yet there is something important to keep in mind here: Oklahoma City still won that game by just six points. If not for Kevin Durant's virtuoso performance down the stretch, the Spurs would be headed into tonight's Game 5 with a chance to close out the series.

The Thunder has not discovered a new magic pill to beat the Spurs. One thing we've harped on time and again during the postseason is that one game in a series has nothing to do with the one that came before it; nor will it have anything to do with the one that comes next. Rajon Rondo scored 44 points in Game 2 against the Heat. He had 15 in Game 4. Every game presents its own set of unique circumstances that are dependent upon strategic adjustments made by the opposing coaches, the collective energy of the players and the vagaries of who turns out to have hot or cold shooting nights.

As we've noted, the Spurs have shifted from a defensive to an offensive emphasis in the last couple of years. One of the byproducts of that is that San Antonio is no longer great at shot-challenging. They ranked in the middle of the pack in opponent effective field-goal percentage and in the bottom third in shot blocks, despite having one of the game's all-time best interior defenders in Tim Duncan. Duncan has obviously slowed and isn't the top-shelf rim protector he once was. But Duncan, like the rest of the Spurs, is still a canny defender and in Gregg Popovich, San Antonio has a coach who is one of the NBA's top defensive strategists.

While the Spurs may not be adept at contesting the shots you take, they are still pretty good at getting you to take shot that aren't a core part of your attack. In the Thunder's case, they obviously want the vast majority of their attempts to come from Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. During the regular season, that trio accounted for 61 percent of all the shots the Thunder attempted. In Game 4, they took 55 percent of OKC's 78 shots and since Westbrook and Harden were having poor shooting nights, the Thunder was forced to look elsewhere for points. They found them in the frontcourt, with the bigs moving into the open spaces and collectively putting up the aforementioned numbers.

That worked last time out but Scott Brooks can't necessarily rely on the same formula going forward. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau always talks about the importance of preventing shooters from gaining confidence early in games, particularly on their home floor. San Antonio wasn't able to do that in Game 4. By the half, the Ibaka-Perkins-Collison power trio was already a combined 15 for 17. Only Ibaka really kept it going after the half, as Brooks did a good job of moving him around the floor to take advantage of his hot hand.

Yet, the Spurs stuck to their defensive guns and it would have worked had Durant not put up a half for the ages, going 11 for 16 and scoring 28 points after the break. Ibaka was really the only help Durant got, save for some occasional bursts from Harden. Westbrook scored just one point in the second half. In essence, the Spurs took away two of the Thunder's three top guns and for one night, Durant turned out to be enough for Oklahoma City all by himself. If the Spurs give up the exact same collection of shots in Game 5, they'll probably win. Don't expect San Antonio to change much, if anything, on the defensive end.

Perkins had not made more than four field goals in a playoff game for the Thunder before Saturday. Ibaka hit all three shots in the midrange zone from which he shot just 26 percent during the regular season. He made all three from long 2s, on which he was a 46-percent shooter. These are shots the Spurs want the Thunder to take. Ibaka and his frontcourt partners had a night to remember in Game 4, but if it's going to take 22 more field goals from those guys for the Thunder to win on Monday, then Oklahoma City is in trouble. There is only so much Durant can do on his own.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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