Ibaka makes the Thunder roll

Ibaka/Durant

Imagine a Martian landed in your backyard just before Game 1 of this year's Western Conference finals and you invited him in to watch. Imagine this Martian had an IQ far beyond yours, but he knew nothing about our NBA.

Imagine he enjoyed Game 1 so much, he returned to watch Games 2, 3 and 4 in your living room. When San Antonio fell behind by 27 points in Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, this is what the Martian would've said: "I thought you told me this Kevin Durant won the Most Valuable Player award?"

Yes, he won what we call the MVP.

Martian: "This makes no sense to me. Clearly, this Serge Ibaka is more valuable than Durant. To paraphrase these Mi0 water enhancer commercials: He changes everything. When Ibaka was injured, this Durant and this Westbrook had no chance in Games 1 and 2. With Ibaka back, now San Antonio has no chance. I would rather have Ibaka join my Framily."

The Martian would be right.

When a calf injury forced Ibaka to miss Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio, Durant and Russell Westbrook were reduced to forcing up lots of low-impact, your-turn/my-turn jump shots, and the Thunder lost by 17 and 35. Thirty-five!

Meanwhile Tim Duncan, 38, looked like he had found the fountain of dunk and Tiago Splitter started to resemble Kareem Abdul Splitter. Yet when Ibaka suddenly became He's-back-a -- as I kept predicting on "First Take" he would in Game 3 -- Duncan immediately looked 68 and Splitter might as well have been playing his first year of organized basketball. These were the Spurs' fifth and sixth games overall against the Thunder with Ibaka in the lineup, and all six times, the Spurs have looked overmatched and demoralized.

The Martian would figure the heavily hyped new movie "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is about all of the ways Ibaka kills San Antonio. He has blocked 23 of their shots in those six games, altered what seem like hundreds more, and psychologically terrorized the Spurs into more missed layups than you'll see in your average 8-year-old's church league game. Ibaka is listed at only 6-foot-10, but plays 10-10 against the Spurs -- their equivalent of a fear-striking Baron Samedi in the James Bond movie "Live and Let Die."

It's debatable who plays with more relentless fury, Westbrook or Ibaka.

With Ibaka looming over the lane, Westbrook and other perimeter defenders are mentally freed up to gamble, overplay and suffocate Spurs shooters into jittery air balls and turnovers. And with Ibaka picking and rocket-rolling for dunks or jumpers that lure a lurching Duncan or Splitter away from the basket, Westbrook and Durant can conduct a two-man parade to the basket or free throw line and find many more makeable little pull-up jumpers.

Ibaka made his first four shots of Game 3 (from 19, 20, 18 and 7 feet), and the Spurs haven't forgotten Game 4 of 2012, when he went 11-for-11, most of them midrange jumpers. Good Lord, this season Ibaka made 38 percent of his 3-pointers (23-of-60).

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."

I'm now convinced Ibaka is the Thunder's most important -- and sometimes most underutilized -- player. And I still consider Westbrook's intangibles -- his fearless clutch guts -- superior to Durant's. (See Durant's four straight late failures in playoff losses last season to Memphis without Westbrook.) So yes, I consider the new MVP the Thunder's third-most important player.

However you rank them, the Martian would sit back and conclude: "It's painfully obvious to me this Oklahoma City team has the three best players on the court. I'm sorry, but this series is over."

And that would be hard to argue. Now, my only hope is what still occasionally happens to Durant and Westbrook against teams other than San Antonio: They go distance-shooting, turnover-prone crazy and erase their eraser, Ibaka. Now, only the Thunder can beat the Thunder.

I imagine the Martian now has no interest in returning to watch Game 5 Thursday night.

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