Game 4 Preview: San Antonio Spurs @ Oklahoma City Thunder

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs look to nullify the momentum built by the return of Serge Ibaka and take a commanding 3-1 series lead in Game 4.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Chesepeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
May 27, 2014, 8:00 PM Spurs Time
TV: ESPN - RADIO: 1200 AM WOAI

Many have labeled Serge Ibaka's return to the court in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals a "Willis Reed Moment." This refers to the 1970 NBA Finals between New York and Los Angeles where Knicks captain Reed tore a muscle in his right thigh in Game 5 of the series and had to sit out of Game 6 while Wilt Chamberlain scored 45 points and pulled down 27 rebounds, forcing a seventh game. Deciding nothing was going to keep him off the court, Reed took an injection that curbed the pain long enough for him to triumphantly limp onto the court moments before tipoff, giving the Knicks and the New York fan base the jolt they needed to prevail in Game 7, securing their first ever NBA Championship.

In Game 3 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals, Ibaka made his triumphant return from an injury (check), gave his team the added boost of confidence they needed to handle the Spurs (check), and was the source of the electric energy that circulated through the fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City on Sunday night (check). On first glance, the situation that went down two nights ago has all the makings of a "Willis Reed Moment."

But we may be ignoring one fact that paints a better picture of the landscape of this Western Conference Finals series in comparison to the 1970 NBA Finals. Willis Reed came back for a decisive Game 7 to help the Knicks finish off the Los Angeles Lakers, while Ibaka came back for a Game 3 to help the Thunder merely stay alive against the Spurs.

Reed was the dagger. Ibaka was the defibrillator.

Whatever emotion and spark that was ignited because of Serge's return was enough to give the victory to the Thunder over the Spurs, but this type of emotional high isn't sustainable over a long period. The Spurs require opponents to be at the peak of their consciousness, awareness, and ability in order to pull out a win against them. This was the case for OKC on Sunday night, but the Thunder are now challenged find a way to extend the narrative a few games longer.

It's funny, though. No Spurs fan in their right mind predicted a sweep over the Thunder, and yet it's our natural reaction to be a little worried after a loss. Remnants of 2012 creep back into our mind, images of the Thunder sweeping the Spurs this past season are still fresh, and the constant reminder that Kevin Durant is still wearing an OKC uniform are all valid reasons to fear an Oklahoma City push. But the fact that the Thunder needed Ibaka to come back from a "season-ending" injury in order to gain any sort of traction in this series is encouraging. The Spurs have proven themselves to be a team that is beat only by events of enormous magnitude in favor of the opposition.

Ibaka's return was a game changer, but Popovich is too good of a coach for it to become a series changer. It doesn't take a basketball genius to understand that the presence of Serge will inhibit points in the paint, but that doesn't mean that the Thunder can't be beat on other parts of the floor. Danny is getting into "Finals" form, Ginobili has retained his killer instinct, and the wisdom of Tony and Timmy hasn't disappeared. If you add in Kawhi's machine-like performance this postseason, then you still have the team that has won multiple games by huge margins in the playoffs.

If, and I think it's more a question of when, the Spurs earn a trip to the Finals, the biggest thing that Ibaka's return to the court will have added is a sense of legitimacy to San Antonio's series win over the Thunder. We will no longer have to play the "what if" game, ask whether the Thunder would would have won had Serge been there defending the hoop. We can rest assured that there will not be an asterisk* on this series win for the Spurs.

Matchup to watch: Yes, it's the Spurs versus Serge. That's what the Thunder have turned this series into, as well as the fans and media. San Antonio has embarrassed OKC with a fully healthy Durant and Westbrook in the first two games, so the rest of this series now rests on Ibaka. In many people's eyes, if the Thunder win, it will have been because of his return. If the Thunder lose, it will have been because the Spurs got a two game head start without Ibaka. What needs to happen is San Antonio finding a way to render OKC's big man useless. The adrenaline won't last forever, and neither will the pain meds.

Game 4, Western Conference Finals, 2014 NBA Playoffs
vs.
Regular Season: 59-23
Playoffs: 8-8

Regular Season: 62-20
Playoffs: 10-5
May 27, 2014
Chesepeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
8:00 pm CST
TV: ESPN - Radio: 1200 WOAI
Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Tony Parker
Thabo Sefolosha SG Danny Green
Kevin Durant SF Kawhi Leonard
Serge Ibaka PF Tim Duncan
Kendrick Perkins C Tiago Splitter
Advanced Stats
95.4 (9th) Pace 95.0 (10th)
110.5 (6th) ORtg 110.4 (7th)
103.9 (6th) DRtg 102.4 (3rd)

For the Thunder's perspective visit Welcome to Loud City.

Game Prediction: Spurs by 4

Vegas Prediction: Thunder by 2.5

As always Tony must dominate Fisher, and you can get your San Antonio Spurs tickets from Daniel Farias with Spurs Sports & Entertainment:

Tel: 210-444-5607 | dfarias@attcenter.com

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