I call them the memory keepers. At every opportunity they remind us the best trades are the ones that never happen. But of course this trade did happen and they take joy in narrating the crime: the Thunder traded their third best player after he appeared in the NBA Finals. What do the Thunder have to show for it? James Harden left Oklahoma, became an All-Star and a top three shooting guard. The Thunder were worse. Sam Presti chose Serge Ibaka over James Harden. That was the bottom line, one with consequences. What Presti did was forever doom the team he is credited with building . Goodbye NBA Finals. Hello mediocrity. The memory keepers wrap themselves in this flag of despair. They consistently argue that Ibaka cannot deliver in moments when all is on the line. He is a role player, a good defender and shot blocker, but not a star. They point to game 5.
History shows that when the series is tied at two games apiece the winner of game 5 usually wins the series. So it was a must win for the Thunder. With that in mind what did Serge Ibaka, the chosen one, do? He had 6 points and 2 rebounds. He missed 7 out of 10 shots. So much for Ibaka’s absence being the reason the Thunder lost in games 1 and 2.
Game 5 was a must win game for the Spurs too. The last thing they wanted to do was go back to Oklahoma down 3-2. The Spurs had a sluggish start. Their defense was casual until the last three minutes of the first quarter when it occurred to them their opponent was a team of jump shooters. As in games 1 and 2 the Thunder had an allergy to scoring in the paint and on defense they didn’t pick up shooters in transition. Manu Ginobli took advantage. He had 19 points. Boris Diaw had 13 points. Danny Green had 14 points. Thus the Spurs began their version of ‘bury the road team’. They hit threes, they finished at the rim, they passed the ball, they just played harder. For a team so focused on redemption this was a game when the Spurs left nothing for chance. Their second half execution was flawless.
The Thunder reverted back to the Thunder team of games 1 and 2, Serge Ibaka or no Serge Ibaka. They didn’t pick up shooters, they were lazy in pick and rolls, they voluntarily submitted to the worst part of their identity as a team: jump shooting. Their bench was particularly ineffective. No one scored in double figures. Really, it wasn’t a fair fight but neither were games 1-4. The home team has simply devastated the opponent. There is nothing that the Spurs did in Game 5 that made you think they can go into Oklahoma City on Saturday night and win in a building they have not won in the past 9 times.
So much was made about the road team’s excellence in the playoffs. The Thunder-Spurs series is old school. The home team makes their opponent look fragile. Until the home team packs up and goes on the road. Then they look fragile. The Harden loyalists will point to this game and say: see, the Thunder should have kept Harden. He would have been their bench scorer. They will argue this particular point for two days, forgetting that James Harden was in the playoffs and lost in the first round. Besides, there will be a game 6. If Ibaka has a double double more than likely it will lead the Thunder to where they want to be, James Harden or no James Harden. There will be a game 7 finale. Everything on the line to get back to the NBA Finals.