Ever since Oklahoma City fell to Miami in the 2011-12 NBA Finals, Thunder fans have been chomping at the bit to get another crack at bringing the franchise just its second championship in nearly fifty years of existence.
The team formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics came into the league in 1967 and won the title just twelve years later with Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and crowd favorite Downtown Freddy Brown, but in the 35 years since, they’ve only sniffed the title twice.
In 1996, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp couldn’t get it done against Jordan and the Bulls and then of course two years ago Durant, Westbrook, and Harden came up well short versus the Heat, dropping the series in a disappointing five games.
Last season the team seemed well poised to make a second title run, but in game two of the opening round of the playoffs, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook collided with Patrick Beverley of the Rockets and tore his lateral meniscus. Reconstructive knee surgery was required, forcing Westbrook to miss the remainder of the season.
OKC was able to overcome the injury and dispatch of Houston four games to two, but in the second round against Memphis they truly missed their play making point guard and saw their championship dreams swept away long before they could even return to the Western Conference Finals.
And now, once again a gigantic spanner has been tossed into OKC’s postseason plans. Center Serge Ibaka has been ruled out of the playoffs with a lower leg injury, and if the results of game one are at all indicative of how they can match up against San Antonio without their big man, the Thunder are well on their way to another “what might have been” kind of off-season.
If I were a Thunder fan, my sentiment might be something along the lines of: This f-ing sucks!
With Ibaka the Thunder are 10-2 versus the Spurs over their last twelve match-ups.
But without Ibaka in game one of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs enjoyed an all-you-can eat buffet at the rim as they went on to spank the Thunder 122-105.
Tim Duncan scored at will, notching an incredible 27 points in just 29 minutes. Manu Ginobili dribbled and slashed to the rim with ease. Seriously, without Serge contesting the lane, San Antonio had no inhibitions whatsoever about attacking the paint.
“We didn’t stop nothing,” Kendrick Perkins said flatly. “They got whatever they wanted against us.”
Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson also admitted that he and his teammates probably got a little lazy on defense, forgetting at times that their “eraser” in the middle wasn’t there to alter or block shots at the rim. They’ll need to get out of this habit pronto if they hope to have a legitimate shot at beating the number one seed in four out of the next six games.
Coach Scott Brooks’ directive is clear: OKC can’t count on Ibaka. End of story. Come to grips with the fact that he won’t be waiting at the rim to change shots. No more excuses. The Thunder’s other big men need to step it up down low and defensive players on the perimeter need to make more of an effort to see to it that they don’t allow the Spurs’ guards and forwards to blow past them with a clear shot to the basket.
A next-man-up philosophy: easier said than done.
Unlike most sports where reserves are just that, a quality basketball team must have at least 3-4 productive players who contribute serious minutes off the bench. Even the top players in the league spend 20% of each and every game resting on the pine. So when a player is called on to replace an injured starter, it’s not as though he’s been waiting in the wings all season “just in case”.
Back-ups in the NBA play each and every night. When the team suffers an injury it’s simply a situation of needing a bench player to increase their minutes and be part of the action for a greater percentage of the game. Instead of stepping in to give “the guy” a breather, you’ve got to step up your game and be that guy.
When we look at the effects of an injury on team chemistry, it’s always more relevant to look at who will replace the injured starter than it is to simply subtract a specific number of points, rebounds, assists or blocked shots.
So herein lies the rub. Brooks has no means to replace Serge Ibaka.
Collison, Adams and Perkins are all valuable in their own way, but none are game-changing defenders like Ibaka. He’s a true rarity. It’s not just that he blocks shots and forces opponents to think twice about driving to the hole; it’s that he allows his teammates to be extra aggressive on the perimeter. His effectiveness in the middle allows for perimeter defenders to play tight and put a hand in the face of the opposing team’s shooters.
So if they can’t replace Serge, what can they do?
Finding a workaround against the Spurs is doubly difficult. Ibaka plays Duncan perhaps better than any other player in the league. His length and strength down low cut off an integral part of San Antonio’s offensive safety valve. And as I mentioned above, being able to take risks out on the perimeter helps to limit the number of quality three point looks that are such a big factor in the Spurs’ offensive mindset.
Asking the team’s other big men to man up and play more like Serge simply isn’t going to work. Sure, asking players to crash the boards extra hard is a good idea, but none of these guys are the complete player that Ibaka is. Even at their best, they won’t be able to replicate his unique playing style.
Instead, perimeter players will need to scale back their aggressiveness and force San Antonio to make their jump shots. The Spurs have a lot of great shooters, but it’s still more difficult to drain jumpers from twenty feet than it is to drop in a lay-up.
Additionally, Brooks may also try to run more change-of-pace small line-ups to try and run the court and keep the game moving at a quicker speed. This strategy may not be super effective on defense, but it will at least allow the Thunder to create more space and hopefully let their play makers outscore those in silver and black.
The end all be all here.
It’s Scott Brooks’ job to downplay the injury and convince his team that all they need to overcome is a little extra hustle and whole lotta heart, but the bottom line is that OKC just went from legitimate contender to big-time underdog.
Like I said, for Thunder fans, this f-ing sucks. But crazier things have happened, and part of winning an NBA title is overcoming the obstacles that present themselves along the way.
Just to add this in as a footnote: despite Brooks’ adamant statements to the contrary, Ibaka says there’s a good chance he’ll be back long before the 1-2 month timetable set by his doctors. He wants to play through the pain and claims he’ll be available for the Finals and perhaps even sooner. It’s unlikely, but if the OKC brass decides to roll the dice and risk adding insult to injury, we could see Serge return to the court in miracle fashion.
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