And suddenly, we’ve got ourselves a series.
The Oklahoma City Thunder – left for dead after Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals – have stormed back to even the series. Yes, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook played well in both wins (Westbrook, in fact, scored 40 points in Game 4), but the most valuable player in this series – without question – is Serge Ibaka.
The Thunder are a convincing 0-2 without him and a convincing 2-0 with him.
“It was really, really fun to see how much he affected the Thunder – on both ends of the floor,” NBA analyst Malik Rose said on The MoJo Show. “I thought he was a big factor (as to) why the Spurs were able to race out to that 2-0 lead in the series, but I didn’t think he would have that much of an effect both offensively and defensively for the Thunder. But hats off to him. He came out, gutted through the injury and played for his teammates and kind of willed them to victory.”
The Thunder took Game 3, 106-97, and Game 4, 105-92. Ibaka combined for 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks in the two wins.
Game 5 is Thursday in San Antonio at 9 p.m. ET.
“I don’t think they’re going to panic,” Rose said of the Spurs. “They’re definitely concerned with Serge being back. But watching (Game 3), they had a lot of breakdowns on the defensive end of the floor. The Spurs have a system on offense and defense, and part of that defensive system is to funnel everything away from the middle. And too many times in Game 3, the Thunder were able to beat the Spurs’ defense and get into the paint.”
Rose, who won two NBA titles with the Spurs, played with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. While they might not be a dynasty, there’s no debating that the Spurs are the standard of excellence in the NBA.
“I’m more amazed than surprised,” Rose said. “It’s no real surprise because I know what they’ve built there. They’re basically building the same foundation and principles they started with David Robinson way back when. Team is everything. It’s all about the name on the front of the jersey and not the one on the back. They’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of luck with Tim, Tony and Manu being the type of players they are – and the type of people they are – that their nucleus hasn’t changed for 10, 15 years.”
A lot of that has to do with Gregg Popovich and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.
“They’re able to just plug and play certain people – certain specialists – around (the Big Three),” Rose said. “(Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have) been going non-stop, and I really don’t see it changing until one of those three either (retires) or (walks) away from the game. But as long as they’re together and healthy, I see them being very relevant in the NBA.”
But how do the Spurs get everyone to buy in? Better yet, how do they get everyone to buy in every year?
“I think it starts with Pop and R.C.,” Rose said. “They don’t bring just anybody into that locker room. They’ll sacrifice points and talent for a character guy. You won’t get into that locker room if you have that me-first attitude.
“Everything there, it starts with a role. Guys buy in, and you see the results.”
While things are certainly heating up out West, the East is in need of a coroner. Miami has won three straight games – all in convincing fashion – after falling behind 1-0 in the series.
“I just think that series is all but done,” Rose said. “You talk about a letdown. Ever since last season when (the Pacers) pushed (Miami) to seven games in the conference finals and then got off to the hot start this season, (I had) been kind of looking forward to this.”
Rose wasn’t too impressed with what he saw from the Pacers through two rounds. He did, however, think they would show up in the conference finals, especially after taking Game 1.
He, like many of us, was wrong.
“Enough already,” Rose said. “I don’t want to hear (any excuses). It’s over. Go back to the drawing board. I don’t even think it goes back to Miami. I think it ends in Indiana.”