Thunder X-factor: Serge Ibaka

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By Michael Kinney

Serge Ibaka didn’t even want to talk about it. When the Oklahoma City power forward was asked about the 2012 playoff game against San Antonio in which he shot 11 of 11 from the field, he says he never thinks about it.

Oh man, That’s over,” Ibaka said. “It’s a couple of years ago. It’s over. “Right now, in this moment, we’ve got the good fortune to play against one of the best basketball teams in the world and it’s exciting to play, to do that.”

However, as the Thunder prepare to take on the Spurs in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals tonight, there may be no bigger X-factor than Ibaka.

For Oklahoma City to have a chance of knocking off San Antonio, they will need the Ibaka of old. Not the one who disappeared at times during the regular season. But the one who wrecked havoc on defense and knocked down open 15 foot jumpers.

Yet, Ibaka won’t even recall those past accomplishments.

I can not be here living in the past. Because it’s over.” Ibaka said. “I may do better than 11 of 11. You never know. I’ve been working all summer and during the season.”

Ibaka averaged 12 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots during the 2015-16 regular season. Those look like solid numbers, except when compared to what he was doing two years ago when he was posting 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a night.

That is the Ibaka the Thunder need to see against the Spurs. Facing the front line of LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw, he can’t have nights when he doesn’t make an impact on both sides of the court.

Ibaka has shown signs that he is ready to be that type of player again. During the first round series with Dallas, he made his presence felt in a variety of ways. From his defense on Dirk Nowitzki to hitting open shots when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were double-teamed.

The Spurs were the No. 1 defense in the regular season and are so far the top defense in the postseason. They will try and limit Durant and Westbrook as much as possible.

That means players such as Ibaka, Kanter, Dion Waiters and Steven Adams have to be ready to contribute and take pressure off the two stars.

Ibaka is the only who has a resume that includes coming up big in the playoffs. So, while Kanter has proven he can be a force for Oklahoma City, their title hopes still may rest with which Ibaka decides to show up this series.

It’s just mindset,” Ibaka said. “I try to do something I love to do 100 percent. I try giving my best to help my team. Just try to do whatever I can to give the best for my teammates.”

Thunder, Spurs know each other well

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By Michael Kinney

It’s not the Lakers vs Celtics of the 80s or Heat vs Knicks of the 90s.

But as far as this new era NBA is concerned, when San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder meet up in the playoffs, it’s the closest thing to a rivalry going today.

For the third time in five years the two teams will face off in the postseason. Oklahoma City won the Western Conference title over San Antonio in 2012. San Antonio came back and claimed the conference championship in 2014 against the Thunder. Both series were full of drama defining moments.

“We’ve had some battles,” Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant said. “It was a few battles that defined by runs. That shows each team really respects each other and definitely want to compete.”

Neither team will be able to take much from their encounters during the 2015-16 regular season. However, the teams know each other so well, it doesn’t really matter.

“When you play San Antonio you have to be prepared right from the tip on how fast and physical the series is gonna be,” Nick Collison said. “They’re gonna run their offense at a higher speed than most teams you play against, so just being able to know what we’re coming into on the defensive end and how locked in we have to be from the jump is big.”

Despite having tied for the seventh best regular season record (67-15) in the history of the NBA, San Antonio has managed to once again stay under the radar. Except for a couple of contests with Golden State, coach Gregg Popovich has kept him team out of the limelight.

“Obviously, they are a great team, well coached team and they are going to test us,” Collison said. “I think the ability to play every play, be engaged every play is key for us, because they are going to test us. They run a lot of actions, it’s difficult to guard, and they aren’t going to beat themselves.”

What the Spurs bring to the table are the same cast of championship veterans in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. While Duncan has lost a step, he is still formidable at the age of 40. Parker and Ginobli pick and choose when to have their moments.

But this year’s San Antonio is built around LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge came to the team in the offseason from Portland and after a slow start has turned into the player the Spurs see as Duncan’s replacement.

Leonard is the back-to-back defensive player of the year and widely regarded as the best two-way player in the NBA. He is one of the few defenders who consistently gives Durant problems.

Throw in David West, Danny Green, Kevin Martin and Boris Diaw, and the Spurs have a deep, talented and savvy squad. But they know they have their hands full with Oklahoma City.

“Obviously we have to be more physical and crisp than we were last series,” Green told Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News. “They are a big bodies team. They get a lot of offensive rebounds off the glass. That’s where they make a lot of their money. And try to slow down their two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Got to slow them down and keep their big men off the boards.”

As great of a defender as Leonard is, Durant, he still averages more than 25 points on 46 percent shooting against him in 11 head to head matchups. That goes with 8 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

Westbrook’s numbers against the Spurs are just as impressive. Despite some believing he is not a superstar, the fiery point guard has posted 22 points, seven assists and almost six rebounds in 12 playoff games against San Antonio.

“I just go out and play my game and run my team,” Westbrook said. “They are a different team. Obviously they have different players. Some of the guys are better than before. Honestly, I think it’s more important for us to work out what we can do as a team. That’s all I’m worried about.”

Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal is set for Saturday night in San Antonio. Game 2 will take place Monday at 8:30 p.m. The series comes back to Oklahoma City Friday and Sunday for Games 3 and 4.

“I’m excited to play,” Durant said. “We have to be ready from the beginning. Going on the road, first game on the road. Guys here have been in that situation before. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”

Westbrook proves ‘Superstar’ status in series clincher

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By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – Before the Dallas Mavericks tipped-off in a crucial playoff game Monday night, owner Mark Cuban decided to add a little spice to an already burning series with Oklahoma City. The outspoken Cuban told reporters that Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was just an All-Star and not a superstar.

For most players, the comment would just be background noise. But for someone like Westbrook, it’s lighter fluid for an already burning motor.

With the Mavericks playoffs lives on the line, Westbrook helped send them home as he led the Thunder to an 118-104 victory in Game 5 of the first round Western Conference first round series at the Chesapeake Energy arena.

Westbrook was asked after the game to respond to Cuban’s comments. Thunder teammate Kevin Durant jumped in with an assist.

He’s an idiot,” Durant said of Mark Cuban. “He’s idiot. That’s what we’ve got to say about that. Next question.”

Oklahoma City wins the series 4-1 and advances to a Western Conference semifinal against the Spurs. Game 1 will be Saturday at San Antonio.

Westbrook racked up 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists Monday, shooting 13-for-23 from the floor. Durant scored 33 points on 11-of-24 shooting to go along with seven rebounds. Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 boards.

I will tell you this, I’m happy he’s on my team” Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody. There is no question that Russell Westbrook is one of the best players in this league.”

Dirk Nowitzki paced Dallas with 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Dwight Powell came off the bench to score 16 points and grab nine rebounds. Justin Anderson added 14 points in the loss.

We’re disappointed at the result obviously,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “But I thought the effort from our team, from start to finish in this series, was second to none. Couldn’t be prouder of the way our guys competed all the way up to the last second in our final game.”

With 7:50 left in the game, Nowitzki cut the Thunder’s lead to 101-98. Dallas got the ball back but missed two open 3-pointers that would have tied the game.

Westbrook was fouled and hit a pair of free throws. After Dallas’ J.J. Barea missed a jumper, Westbrook drained another shot to put the Thunder up 105-98.

Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson came up with a block, and it led to another Westbrook jumper with 5:05 left.

The Mavericks Raymond Felton finally ended the run with an off-balance bucket. Dallas got the ball back, and Nowitzki drained a 3-pointer from the corner.

Westbrook took a long 3-point attempt that was off target. Roberson got the rebound and put-back.

On their next possession, the Thunder missed three shots but got the rebound each time. Durant finally knocked down a mid-range jumper and was fouled in the process. Nowitzki was called for a technical foul. The ensuing free throws gave the Thunder an 113-103 lead with 2:49 left. That was enough to put the game and series away.

I think for us getting a chance to move on is great,” Donovan said. “I think this series made our team better. We dealt with a lot of physical confrontation. I say that in a very positive way.”

Westbrook began the night like a man on a mission. Whether it was knocking down his jumper or driving the baseline for dunks, he had the Dallas defense on its heels. He ended the opening quarter with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting.

Westbrook’s attack mode may have been inspired by another confrontation with Dallas forward Charlie Villanueva during his pre-game dance.

“Now he gets to go home and get ready in the offseason to sit and watch 82 more games like he did this year,” Westbrook said of Villanueva.

He might not even be in the league,” Durant added.

Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 13 points before Dallas began to whittle it down. Led by Nowitzki, the Mavs got the deficit down to a single basket with 2:32 left in the first half.

However, the Thunder outscored the Mavs 13-8 down the stretch and grabbed a 68-61 halftime advantage.

Oklahoma City was unable to pull away for much of the second half. Every time Durant, Westbrook or Dion Waiters put the home team ahead by more than 10, the Mavs found a way to claw back to within striking distance. Despite only having 10 players in uniform, the Mavericks kept on battling back.

Metaphorically, we emptied our chamber in five games,” Carlisle said. “I don’t kn ow what we would have thrown at them in game six. They were just simply better. Their two superstars were just great this series.”

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