After handling the Los Angeles Clippers in six games, the Oklahoma City Thunder's hopes of returning to the NBA Finals took a serious blow on Friday. The team announced that forward Serge Ibaka is expected to miss the remainder of the postseason with a calf injury.
Ibaka is one of the league's very best two-way players, and his absence will create a number of challenges for head coach Scott Brooks' club. But it will also create opportunities. There's little doubt the Thunder still have enough star power to win this series. The task just got a good bit harder.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti released a statement and said he expects the team to adapt in its upcoming series against San Antonio (per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver):
We are obviously disappointed for Serge, as he is a tremendous competitor, and we know how badly he wants to be on the court with his teammates. At this point it is important that our team directs its concentration and energy towards preparation and execution for our upcoming series. As with all teams, our group has confronted different challenges. It is our collective experience that we will call on to ensure that we play to our capabilities.
Oklahoma City dispatched the Spurs from the 2012 Western Conference finals and will look to have history repeat itself even in its short-handed state.
The Spurs, meanwhile, will look to exploit Ibaka's absence from a defense that desperately needs his rim protection and shot-blocking ability. There's no easy way around that for OKC, but there are serviceable Plan B options in forward Nick Collison and center Steven Adams.
The question is whether or not they will be enough.
There's no substitution for Ibaka. The 24-year-old quickly established himself as one of the most imposing defensive presences in the game. While his ability to guard post-players like Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter is valuable, the real tragedy here is that he won't be around to shut down penetration.
His 2.7 blocks per game ranked second in the league this season, giving the Thunder a consistent source of rim protection against the likes of Tony Parker (himself dealing with hamstring issues at the moment).
Ibaka also averaged 8.8 rebounds this season and was especially lethal on the offensive glass. His leaping ability and constantly-running motor have made him an absolute force around the basket, and there's no two ways around how much that's going to be missed.
It gets worse, though.
From the power forward spot, Ibaka is instrumental to Oklahoma City's floor spacing. His ability to make 15-17 foot jumpers from the elbow forces defenders into making difficult decisions. Take a look at his shot chart from the regular season.
Without Ibaka around, the Thunder will face a clogged paint far more often.
Ibaka's offense is often overlooked given the extent of his contributions on the defensive end. But he averaged 15.1 points this season and usually served as the team's third option on offense, adding a valuable weapon on nights when Durant and Westbrook couldn't carry the scoring load all by themselves.
Ibaka had 20 important points in Game 3 against the Clippers, converting nine of his 10 field-goal attempts—many of which came from that elbow.
The reserves who reason to take Ibaka's place have strengths of their own, but they will struggle mightily to measure up.
Collison will be the first man up in Ibaka's absence. Whether he starts games remains to be determined, but he's likely to see a steep increase in minutes. The 33-year-old played just 16.7 minutes per contest this season, serving as a reliable backup.
He has a little bit of range on his jumper but is usually reluctant to take it. That's the blessing and curse of Collison. He never tries to do too much. He's got good awareness around the basket and will collect his fair share of rebounds, but he's not one to take ill-advised shots.
The upside is that it's not like OKC's offense is going to go crazy. Possessions will continue to hinge on what Durant and Westbrook do with the ball in their hands.
Collison will fit in pretty seamlessly. He's been around this team for the duration of his career and understands his role. That should be somewhat reassuring to Thunder fans.
Then there is Adams. Though primarily a center, the seven-footer will become increasingly useful thanks to his ability to protect the rim. He's averaging 1.4 blocks in the postseason despite playing in just 16.3 minutes a game. That's impressive defensive production.
Adams is also a good rebounder, a big, energetic body who's not afraid to get physical in the painted area. His biggest challenge may be remaining on the floor for long stretches given his penchant for fouling. He's picking up 2.8 personal fouls per game in the playoffs—again, in just 16.3 minutes.
The worry with Adams is that he's still a rookie. Despite his effort, the 20-year-old could struggle to handle the crafty post-moves he'll encounter from Duncan and Splitter. His aggressiveness can quickly become a liability with just a pump-fake or two.
It's worth noting that OKC could also look to employ some variant of "small-ball" more often in an attempt to give extra minutes to reserves Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson. If the Thunder are going to struggle to defend San Antonio, the real back-up plan may just be trying to run them out of the building.
Besides, Butler and Jackson are almost certainly the best options on Brooks' bench. Finding them some more playing time may be preferable to over-relying on Collison and Adams.
The danger, of course, is that this would mean Durant spending more minutes at the 4-spot. Whether he struggles there defensively or not, those are minutes spent banging with bigger bodies. That's not a toll you really want your best player taking this deep into the playoffs.
So yes, there will probably be more small-ball—but not 48 minutes of it. Collison and Adams' contributions will remain pivotal.
Ibaka's injury is a game changer, but rest assured no one on San Antonio's side is growing overconfident—not yet, anyway. The Thunder still have two top-10 caliber players in Durant and Westbrook. They have a respectable bench and smart role players. They have chemistry, experience and all the good intangible stuff that goes along with that.
This still promises to be a close series. The Spurs will have an easier time winning a couple of games in the paint, but they still rely heavily on a three-point barrage that can go cold at any time.
Meanwhile, the Thunder will look to speed games up and make the most of their athletic backcourt. Jackson has been a nightmare for the Spurs this season, averaging 21.3 points in four regular-season games against them.
OKC will also have a world of confidence coming into this series. It swept San Antonio during the regular season and has reason to believe it's discovered a formula for beating these Spurs. The caveat, of course, is that doing so is a lot easier when at full strength.
Still, there's nothing impossible about the task awaiting Durant, Westbrook and Co. They may be missing their third-best player, but they won't be missing their winning pedigree.