Oklahoma City Thunder Have No Margin for Error to Contend

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 14, 2013

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Last season's playoff defeat proved that the Oklahoma City Thunder simply couldn't compete at an elite level without Russell Westbrook.

Following a 111-103 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, it's safe to say the same thing about Serge Ibaka.

With six seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ibaka got tangled up with Blake Griffin. Given the history between the two, that's hardly surprising. Ibaka earned a flagrant foul for a low blow against Griffin last season, so there are still some unresolved issues between the two.

It also was not surprising that Matt Barnes intervened between the two as Griffin and Ibaka exchanged shoves.

Both Barnes and Ibaka were ejected after the ensuing fracas.

"You would have to say it woke us up a little bit," J.J. Redick said (via ESPN). "It hurt both teams."

Heading into halftime, the Thunder were ahead by a comfortable nine-point cushion. Much of that margin was attributable to Ibaka and his excellent first half of play. Oklahoma City's power forward scored 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting in 17 minutes.

With Ibaka unable to join his team after the break, the Clippers quickly erased the nine-point deficit, turning it into a five-point advantage by the time the fourth period began.

The Thunder tried to mount a comeback in the late stages, but L.A. had an answer for every spurt that Oklahoma City could muster. When the final buzzer sounded, the Clippers had notched a win on the strength of a balanced attack.

All five Los Angeles starters scored in double figures while Jamal Crawford provided 20 points off the bench. By contrast, only Westbrook (19) and Durant (33) joined Ibaka in reaching double-digit scoring. It was clear that the Thunder missed their third wheel.

Numbers Sometimes Lie

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 10 : Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder gets pumped up against the the Washington Wizards during an NBA game on November 10, 2013 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

If you were to look at Ibaka's splits, you certainly wouldn't come to the conclusion that he was a vital part of the Thunder's success.

Oklahoma City has actually defended far better with Ibaka on the bench this season, posting a defensive rating of 93.3 when he sits compared to 102.8 when he is on the floor, per NBA.com. 

In 2012-13, the Thunder's offensive and defensive ratings were nearly identical with Ibaka playing or on the bench.

But those watching the game against the Clippers couldn't ignore the difference between the two halves.

With Ibaka on the court, the Thunder had another weapon with which to attack the Clippers' vulnerable interior defense. Not only that, but the threat of his deadly mid-range jumper helped drag DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin away from the hoop, which opened up more driving lanes for OKC's penetrators.

It's important for the Thunder to field a lineup that matches up athletically with their competition. That's clearly key against a front line that can run and jump like L.A.'s Griffin-Jordan combo, and it's also necessary against the rest of the Western Conference's elite frontcourts.

Keep It Simple

Nov 13, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks gestures in the first half against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Besides adding athleticism and floor-spacing, Ibaka's presence on the court also takes a few decisions away from head coach Scott Brooks. As condescending as it may sound, we've seen enough of Brooks' in-game adjustments to know that it's generally a good thing if he doesn't have to think on the fly.

When the Grizzlies mauled the Thunder in last season's playoffs, it became abundantly clear that Brooks hadn't installed an offense that could function without Westbrook. Essentially, he relied on the talent of his stars to create offense in place of a coherent scheme.

To a lesser extent, Ibaka's absence also forces Brooks to come up with solutions on his feet. Against the Clippers, Brooks turned to a couple of truly odd lineups in search of an answer.

Ibaka isn't a player whom the Thunder run many sets for on offense. If he gets mid-range shots, it's generally because either Durant or Westbrook has created them by drawing defenders and kicking him the ball. When the Thunder lose Ibaka as a scoring option, it puts more pressure on their other two stars, makes the offense even more predictable than usual and forces Brooks to make decisions.

Oklahoma City is better off when Brooks just allows his full arsenal of offensive players to do the thinking for him.

Bare Cupboard

Nov 13, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (bottom) and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4) battle for the ball at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It's also an unfortunate reality that the Thunder don't have the kind of depth up front to withstand the loss of Ibaka for a prolonged period of time.

Obviously, his ejection against the Clippers won't have the long-term effects of a significant injury, but it served as a quick reminder that the Thunder lack the personnel to replace him.

Nick Collison is a heady, active and underrated player, but he's not someone who can stretch the defense or compete athletically with the Western Conference's best bigs.

Steven Adams is extremely promising, but he's still just 20 years old and is probably at least a year away from being the kind of player the Thunder can count on to play significant minutes in big games.

Beyond that, the Thunder can trot out Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet, who should probably never see the court under any circumstances.

Oklahoma City needs Ibaka almost by default.

Razor-Thin Roster

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 25:  Kevin Durant #35, Serge Ibaka #9 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder face off against the Sacramento Kings on January 25, 2013 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The Thunder have made a habit of losing key players over the past couple of seasons. James Harden left before the 2012-13 campaign tipped off, and then Kevin Martin signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves this past summer.

Through those departures, Oklahoma City has placed an increasingly heavy burden on its established stars while simultaneously hoping that its young players can develop quickly enough to share the load. There's good reason to believe in Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and especially Adams.

While they all have bright futures, the Thunder are trying to win a title right now, and with those three unproven players still unable to provide consistent production, Oklahoma City's fate is tied entirely to Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka.

The Thunder are a championship contender with a razor-thin margin for error.

It goes without saying that they can't afford an injury to any of their three best players. However, now we know that it's also vital for them to avoid extracurriculars that could result in technicals and ejections.

"I didn't see the video after that, so I will try to make sure I watch it," Ibaka said (via ESPN). "I was disappointed, but I will learn from my mistake. I don't want to think about it no more."

Oklahoma City is going to have to walk a fine line in more ways than one this season.


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