Serge Ibaka would have made a difference in this series.
Back in 2012—the last time the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder met up in the conference finals—Ibaka was arguably the player who decided a six-point Game 4 victory. He went 11-of-11 from the field, draining mid-range jumpers as if he didn't know how to miss. He finished the game with 26 points.
In turn, the Thunder tied the series at two games apiece, laying the foundation for an eventual six-game victory. The Spurs were up in that series 2-0, brimming with confidence.
This time the Spurs will know better. Even without Ibaka around. Even with James Harden at home watching the playoffs from afar. Even with Oklahoma City sacrificing ball movement in order to park the ball in Kevin Durant's and Russell Westbrook's hands.
San Antonio will know better.
This is a team that's been trained never to get too high or too low. It's as even-keeled as a team can get, committed to seeing through a process that almost always results in the Spurs dictating the pace and style of play.
It's no secret that the Spurs will do their best to exploit Ibaka's absence.
Best sense of overall Spurs attitude regarding Ibaka, hugely sympathetic, but zero pity.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 17, 2014
Ginobili on Ibaka injury: "It's quite a loss for them. Hopefully we use that to our advantage."— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 17, 2014
Getting to the basket just got easier. Winning the battle of the boards became more likely, especially in terms of keeping OKC off the offensive glass. The Spurs also stand a better chance of confounding the Thunder's floor spacing without Ibaka around to drain jumpers from the elbow.
Ibaka averaged 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per contest this season. His 2.7 blocks per game ranked second league-wide.
He recently recalled visions of that Game 4 against San Antonio, converting on 9-of-10 shots in a 20-point Game 3 against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Thunder won that game by six, too.
Without Ibaka around, the Thunder will have to work harder on both ends of the floor. They'll need extra contributions from bigs Nick Collison and Steven Adams. They'll need to find a way to succeed going small a little more often. They'll need to defend against penetration, walling off the paint to keep Tony Parker and Co. on the perimeter.
SB Nation's Mike Prada similarly notes:
Ibaka's presence will be badly missed in a Western Conference Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs. Ibaka has made significant strides even since the Thunder's 2012 series win over San Antonio, particularly defensively, where he's cultivated his raw tools into a devastating rim protection package. His ability to hit mid-range jumpers also provides Oklahoma City's offense with a modicum of spacing.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney breaks down one way Ibaka has been especially valuable against the Spurs:
When these two teams meet, Ibaka helps challenge that dynamic. He’s done a splendid job against Tim Duncan in recent games, with his length and strength in the post denying the Spurs a favorite option for fall-back offense. Beyond that, Ibaka’s explosion as a help defender allows the Thunder to pursue the Spurs out to the three-point line without hesitation.
But there is some silver lining. Head coach Scott Brooks' club is no stranger to adversity. After losing Westbrook last postseason, this team knows a thing or two about playing shorthanded. Just as importantly, it has the human resources to do so.
The Superstar Factor
You could surround Durant and Westbrook with just about anyone and still boast a formidable lineup. Durant averaged 33.2 points in the semifinals against the Clippers. He dropped 39 in OKC's Game 6 clincher.
While Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will make him work a little bit harder on the offensive end, there's no stopping KD. This guy has seen every defensive look on the planet.
Meanwhile, Westbrook has been a beast in these playoffs. He's already chalked up three triple-doubles in the postseason and came within two rebounds of a fourth in Game 3 against Los Angeles. He averaged 25.6 points per contest against Memphis and 27.8 against the Clippers—both well above his regular-season contribution of 21.8 points per game.
If the Spurs have any hope against these two, it's Oklahoma City's tendency to rely too heavily on them.
With two scorers who are so incredibly dynamic, the Thunder are easily lulled into a comfort zone. Just give KD or Westbrook the ball and let them go to work. That sometimes seems to be the extent of this team's half-court offense, particularly against teams that keep hands in the faces of three-point threats like Caron Butler.
Then again, the Thunder would be even crazier to underutilize Durant and Westbrook. Brooks will look for a balance between moving the ball and making sure it winds up in the right hands. And regardless of how things pan out, life won't be easy for the Spurs.
There's a reason San Antonio lost to this team four times during the regular season. That reason has more to do with a couple of electric scorers than it does Ibaka, and those scorers haven't gone anywhere.
The Thunder bench doesn't stand out as one of the league's best. That's in large part because it's usually so unnecessary. The starting five is so good that OKC usually gets by on a seven- or eight-man rotation pretty easily.
But even with most of the minutes taken up by Oklahoma City's premier starting cast, the bench managed to rank 14th league-wide in scoring this season. However, behind the numbers, this second unit is much better than meets the eye.
So here's the problem for San Antonio: The Thunder actually have some solid reserve big men in Collison and Adams. They also have enough backcourt and wing weapons to go small, and that translates into some serious versatility.
Thanks to Caron Butler, Derek Fisher and Spurs-killer Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City will have no problem shrinking its lineup and playing Durant at the 4.
In some ways, it makes for an even more intimidating lineup, one that's supremely capable of spacing the floor and running in transition. Even with Ibaka around, OKC may have looked for Jackson to get additional minutes one way or another. He averaged 21.3 points in four games against the Spurs this season.
Accordingly, the Spurs will be forced to adjust—perhaps by playing Tiago Splitter a little less, going small in their own way. That could mean more minutes for Boris Diaw. It could mean some rare minutes at the 4 for Kawhi Leonard.
Either way, it will mean San Antonio isn't quite playing in its wheelhouse.
Tempo will be an interesting factor in this series. If the Thunder indeed elect to go small, you'd think they'd like to push the pace as much as possible. On the other hand, the Spurs are pretty comfortable putting up big points in their own right. When the second unit comes in, quick shots are par for the course.
Could we see a battle of who can play faster? It may not be natural for either coach, but it's a distinct possibility. We've come to expect games to slow down in the postseason, but that's not always the case.
OKC's lineup and tempo options don't diminish Ibaka's importance. They just go to show that the Thunder have an opportunity to get creative here.
If you're a Spurs fan, you're probably feeling fairly confident about this series. Despite the unimpressive regular-season showings against these Thunder, Ibaka's loss is key.
San Antonio has its own injury concerns with Parker's strained hamstring. Though everyone expects him to play in Game 1, there's no telling how effective he'll be. The veteran point guard's success is largely predicated on his ability to get to the basket, and that whole quickness thing usually requires a healthy hamstring.
Keep an eye on Parker's aggressiveness. If he's not aggressive early, that could be a bad sign.
With or without Parker on his A-game, San Antonio will rely heavily on its depth once again. If it has an advantage in this series, it may have more to do with guys like Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli than it does with Ibaka being out.
San Antonio's supporting cast got off to a slow start against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, but it recovered well against the Portland Trail Blazers in the semifinals. Head coach Gregg Popovich will need a complete effort from his rotation, one that's just as concerned about defending as it is hoisting three-pointers.
If that's the effort he gets, the Spurs have excellent odds of returning to the NBA Finals.