NBA: Gregg Popovich solves the Spurs' Serge Ibaka problem

7:32 a.m. EDT May 30, 2014   SAN ANTONIO — From Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett on down to the guy who cuts the holes in Russell Westbrook's pants, they knew something was coming.

The great Gregg Popovich was on the other side, one of the all-timers in the coaching ranks and a master tactician of the highest order. But this? "The Red Rocket," San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner, starting in place of center Tiago Splitter, then passing the role to Boris Diaw in time to send this blue-and-orange sports car into the guard rail in a 117-89 Game 5 win Thursday night at the AT&T Center?

Just another shocker in a wild Western Conference finals that the Spurs now lead 3-2.

Little things go a long ways this time of year, and the Thunder's Superman, forward Serge Ibaka, was the first to admit that the schematics messed with their minds and their rhythm here. Bonner's early presence meant the player who Popovich had deemed "the best defensive player in the league" could no longer treat the paint like his personal property.

Even with those long arms, and all that speed and athleticism, there was just too much territory here — especially with the Spurs shooting like this. The same held true when Diaw relived his Phoenix Suns days while stretching out this revived Thunder defense, and Ibaka's kryptonite — if only for a night — had been found.

The Thunder had expected to see Diaw at the start, and maybe that move would have worked just the same. But there's something to be said for the element of surprise, especially when it comes right before tipoff of this sort of pressure-packed playoff game.

Ibaka didn't hear that he'd be facing off against Bonner until Kevin Durant told him 5 minutes before the start, and he looked like a different player on both ends from the jump. He awkwardly attacked the rim early, missing his first four shots en route to a six-point night. He struggled to cover all the extra ground on the defensive end and had just two rebounds.

The inevitable ripple effect of the Thunder's defensive leader looking out of sorts ensued, with San Antonio — which had shot just below 40% in their Game 3 and Game 4 losses — shooting 51.3% overall and burying 13 of 26 three-pointers. After the Spurs lost 12 of the past 14 matchups which included Ibaka, they may have solved the riddle at the right time.

"They made us work defensively," Ibaka said. "They were sharing the ball very well tonight, and they started early in the game (when they were) pretty effective on two-point line. Then (they) made us kind of nervous on defense, kind of lose a bit of our control in the paint, and specifically myself. I did not do a better job to protect my teammates in the paint. ... I was hoping I would be there for them.

"I saw one time (Spurs guard Manu) Ginobili, he knew I was out (on the perimeter), so he drove straight to the basket. ... For the next game, we need to figure out what we're going to give them, what we're going to take (from) them."

As out-of-nowhere as Ibaka's return from his calf strain and incredible impact on the previous two games were, this was just as unexpected. All around him, nerves frayed in the kinds of ways that surely didn't help with the recovery effort that never came.

Durant, the always-classy NBA MVP, showed signs of cracking amid this hostile environment early, hollering at a clock operator when he wasn't allowed to check in during the second quarter and foolishly engaging with a Spurs fan in the fourth quarter when she yelled at him to sit down. Westbrook was losing it by the time the fourth quarter neared and the Spurs' lead had been pushed to 14 points.

He barked back and forth with Ibaka about a blown assignment, then turned to Brooks for answers — "Scott," he said with so much frustration — before finally taking the deepest of breaths as he tried to calm down. The lead would be 20 just three minutes later.

Westbrook smacked the powder that sat on the scorer's table onto the floor not long after timeout, a move that may have inspired some acerbic Spurs fans to chant "Westbrook sucks" over and over not long after. Teammate after teammate tried to raise his spirits at every break, only to have his hand barely raise as they gave him a low-five.

Come to think of it, the Thunder weren't just in the guard rail. They were through it and getting dangerously close to the cliff.

None of this may matter by the time Saturday arrives, of course. The Thunder are intense that way, a high-stress NBA experience if ever there was one that is still more than capable of pulling off the comeback in this series. They don't have the poise or the experience of these Spurs, but that doesn't mean they can't capture that Western Conference crown that we thought was theirs for good when they ended the Spurs' season back in 2012.

They knew Popovich would be up to something. Now, a counter must come.

"Popovich is one of the best coaches in the NBA," Ibaka said. "He saw after two games, they lost, and I knew he's going to make some big difference. He did tonight. Great job. Well, now it's our turn."

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