The Thunder have been down this road before. And while the experience is nice, it also didn’t have a happy ending. Trying to cope in the postseason without one of your anchors is an incredible thing to ask, and here the Thunder are trying to do it again.
This time it’s Serge Ibaka who is likely lost for the rest of the Thunder’s run, and you can’t even blame it on Patrick Beverley. Can the Thunder still salvage this? Is there hope? Are they done? Here are five big thoughts about this difficult news:
1. You’re not simply replacing Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is a destructive player, especially against the Spurs. Against the Spurs this season Ibaka averaged 14.0 points on 46.3 percent shooting with 11.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. But it wasn’t only the stats. His ability to erase opportunities at the rim — both by blocks and intimidation — pretty much makes the Thunder defensive scheme work against the Spurs.
San Antonio runs an intricate offensive system that spaces the floor for shooters and opens driving lanes for dribble attacks on the paint. With Ibaka, the Thunder can play the perimeter more aggressively, attacking closeouts hard without too much fear of a pump and drive, because Ibaka is waiting in the paint. Tony Parker is a great finisher, but multiple times this season got to the rim and basically just said “nope” and turned around and ran out. There’s no way for the Thunder to just stick someone new in there to provide that kind of anchoring.
In the four meetings this season, the Spurs shot 46.6 percent inside five feet with Ibaka on the floor, and 63.6 percent with him off. He can almost single-handily change their offense.
2. What’s the plan? The one game Ibaka sat this season, Perry Jones started in his place. Is that the move again? Or do you go with Nick Collison? Or even another: Do you just start small and go with Durant at the 4 and play Reggie Jackson or Caron Butler from tipoff?
Scott Brooks has some options here, but none of them are exactly great. The Spurs have two quality interior players, and Ibaka likely would’ve had the assignment of Tiago Splitter. Durant might be able to handle him for stretches, but that’s a lot of early wear and tear to place on KD, plus you’re risking fouls.
3. Is the pressure on, or off Scott Brooks? Another season that the Thunder have had their postseason derailed by an injury. Which means another season that we won’t get to properly evaluate if this team had what it took or not to win it all. Even before the injury, Brooks wasn’t getting fired this summer if the Thunder lost, but now he has a quality excuse. In that regard, the pressure is off of him if the Thunder fail. He’s always the focal point of losses, but without his third-best player against the Spurs juggernaut, how can you really blame him?
At the same time, this is an opportunity for him to show some coaching chops. Make bold decisions. Come up with clever counters. Dictate matchups. Force the Spurs to adjust. Brooks has outcoached Popovich before, by virtue of having better personnel and taking advantage of it in the 2012 WCF. He’s down a very key piece now, so he’s got difficult decisions to make.
4. Can the Thunder still win? Yes. I truly believe they can. And honestly, I’m sticking with my original pick of Thunder in six. The reason is simple: Kevin Durant is that good. And the Spurs still have absolutely no answer for the backcourt tandem of Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson. Not having Ibaka damages the Thunder’s defense horribly, but I think there’s potential for them to outscore the Spurs.
In the four games, with Ibaka on the floor the Spurs scored just 93.0 points per 100 possessions, and 120.8 with him off. Though the Thunder scored 133.7 on them with Ibaka off as well. So they might be able to pile up points and just try and run away from the Spurs.
The issue is, even if they find their way past San Antonio, it’s pretty impossible to see them beating the Heat without Ibaka.
5. This just really sucks. It sucks for Ibaka. It sucks for Durant. It sucks for Westbrook. It sucks for Hasheem Thabeet. It sucks for everybody. The Thunder paid their dues last season with Westbrook’s deflating injury and now here they are writing checks all over again. It was definitely no guarantee this team was capable of winning a championship last season, and the same goes for this season. But we all wanted to see them try. We wanted to see them fail on their own accord, because the roster was flawed or because Scott Brooks screwed up or because someone else was just better than them. But now we have to wait another season to actually know.