Take it from someone -- me -- who picked the Spurs to beat Miami in six games in this year's NBA Finals: Ibaka has been overshadowed and extremely underrated, which means Durant and Westbrook have been a little overhyped and overrated as a dynamic duo. Did Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have an intimidating shot-blocker or a 3-point-shooting center through their six-ring run? No. Do LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have an Ibaka? No.
Yet Jordan and Pippen were, and LeBron and D-Wade are, so much better than Durant and Westbrook as individual defenders that they didn't/don't need an eraser behind them. This is also why we (unfortunately) have a classic rock-paper-scissors competition among the Heat, Thunder and Spurs. The Spurs' paper can cover the Heat's rock because the Spurs have too many weapons for just two great defenders, and Duncan and Splitter have a fair fight against Chris Bosh and Chris "Birdman" Andersen. The Heat's rock can break the Thunder's scissors because LeBron and Wade can contain Durant and Westbrook and aren't quite as intimidated by Ibaka.
And (unfortunately) the Thunder's scissors can shred the Spurs' paper. If the Spurs could figure a way to outthink or outmaneuver the Thunder in seven games, they would avenge last year's Game 6 collapse and beat the Heat in the Finals. But . . .
Even I -- a 10-year supporter of the Spurs on "First Take" -- couldn't see a shred of evidence in Games 3 and 4 to make a case for them winning this series. When I hear "this is turning into 2012 all over again," I only wish it would. In the West finals two years ago, of course, the Spurs barely overcame the Thunder with a 22-year-old Ibaka (and James Harden) in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio -- then lost four straight. Yet Game 4 in Oklahoma City was at least competitive. The Spurs trailed by only four with 4:48 left and lost by six after a 34-32 fourth-quarter shootout.
In Tuesday night's Game 4, coach Gregg Popovich threw in the towel and pulled his starters midway through the third quarter.
In 2012's Game 5, Manu Ginobili missed a 3 to tie with 5 seconds left. Thursday night, I can only hope it stays that close. For that matter, in 2012 the Spurs led Oklahoma City in Game 6 for 37 of the 48 minutes before the Thunder closed out the series. Now . . .
Before Game 4 Tuesday night, Popovich shocked me with a quote that had undertones of a concession speech. Seldom will you hear him rave about an opponent, especially in the throes of a series, the way he did about Ibaka.
"I think he's a special player and a special person. The way he handles himself, the class that he exudes, I think he's the best defensive player in the league. I think he's been overlooked to some degree in that [defensive] regard," Popovich said. "But he also does what he does at the offensive end. I think he's one of the most gifted players in our league because he's a dual player -- he does it at both ends. But he's also a fine man, so that's a pretty great combination."
Wow. Was that response intended to motivate his players? Or to basically tell them: "Let's tip our caps to this man. He's just too good."