One week ago, it appeared that the Western Conference Finals were over. The San Antonio Spurs had just drubbed the Oklahoma City Thunder by 35 points in Game 2, a strong follow-up after their 17-point win in Game 1. In the minds of most observers, the Spurs were headed to the NBA Finals; the rest of the series was a mere formality.
Can nit-pick some OKC stuff, but the loss of Ibaka is killing them, and the Spurs are in god mode. They are just so freaking good.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 21, 2014
And then, the Thunder rose from the dead. Back on their home floor, they won Game 3 and Game 4 by a combined 22 points. These two games were a complete reversal from what had happened in San Antonio.
What changed? Is Oklahoma City just that much better at home? Perhaps that is part of it, but the real difference over the last two games has much more to do with the return of one man: Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka has blocked a total of seven shots in the two games he's played in, and his presence has completely changed what the Spurs can do on offense. According to the ESPN Stats & Information, the Spurs averaged 60 points on 66.7% shooting in the paint for the first two games of the series. In the last two games, they've averaged 38 points on 46.3% shooting in the paint.
This series has been the perfect experiment for how a good interior defender can completely change a team. With the NBA Draft approaching, David Griffin and the Cleveland Cavaliers ought to take note.
Look at how rim protection COMPLETELY changes this series. If only there was an uber athletic shot blocker the Cavs could draft….
— Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKazNBA) May 27, 2014
Of all the things the Cavs' defense has been missing over the past few seasons, rim protection has always been their most glaring need. Kyrie Irving takes a lot of heat for being a poor defender, and most of that is deserved, but the organization hasn't done him any favors by not having any kind of legitimate shot blocker behind him. We're seeing now how important interior defense is, at the highest level. I mean, the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for crying out loud, but they can't compete for a championship without Ibaka.
If the Cavs do decide that they want to get serious about protecting the rim, their choice in next month's draft is obvious. This is how one scout described Joel Embiid to Grantland:
"He has legitimate size. Great hands and feet. He will block shots immediately."
This isn't to say that Embiid should absolutely be the number one pick. There are still questions about his health, and there's a lot to like about Andrew Wiggins, and some of the other options. But personally, seeing what a difference Ibaka makes for the Thunder has really given me something to think about.