If the San Antonio Spurs’ paint production in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals were a paper target at a shooting range, they just walked up to point-blank distance and blasted it with birdshot.
The No. 1 seeded Spurs finished with 66 points in the paint en route to decisive 122-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night—by far the most eye-popping stat on a night when San Antonio offered up basketball splendor aplenty.
That number, however, tells you just how large the loss of Serge Ibaka looms for the Thunder.
On Friday it was announced Ibaka would miss the remainder of the postseason with a calf injury, suffered in OKC’s series-clinching Game 6 win over the Los Angeles Clippers the night before.
Everyone knew Ibaka’s absence would mean increased pressure on the Thunder interior. Whether head coach Scott Brooks saw this kind of punishment coming is another question entirely.
In electing to start Nick Collison in Ibaka’s stead, Brooks was banking on his veteran forward’s time-tested moxie paying something in the way of defensive dividends.
Instead, Collison finished with zero points and three rebounds in 16, mostly forgettable minutes.
Steven Adams, the firebrand rookie center who will doubtless be seeing extended minutes as the series grinds on, didn’t fair much better, tallying four points and two rebounds in similarly limited action.
The end result was, for anyone who knows these Spurs, all too predictable: a murderous mix of Tony Parker drives, slices and slashes from Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, and—most devastating of all—Tim Duncan’s unbridled brilliance on the block.
The future Hall of Famer’s final stat line: 27 points and seven boards on 11-of-19 shooting, with only a single field goal coming from outside the paint.
Afterwards, even Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich found the time to take a veiled shot at OKC’s complete lack of rim protection.
While his counterpart seemed resigned to a kind of fatalistic analysis:
As if Monday’s mauling weren’t evidence enough for the Thunder’s precarious position, consider this: Heading into the conference finals, Ibaka’s 7.4 net rating ranked tops among OKC players who’ve averaged three minutes per game this postseason, per NBA.com.
And while the Thunder’s 103.6 defensive rating with Ibaka on the floor is certainly respectable given the level of Western Conference competition, it’s the fifth-year forward’s offensive presence the Thunder may miss most.
What recourse the Thunder have is, at this point, difficult to say. Still, one thing's for certain: While Collison might bring a bevy of intangibles to the table, his inability to consistently space the floor could prove disastrous. Here’s Bleacher Report’s Fred Katz:
Collison has always been able to knock down mid-range shots at an efficient rate. He sunk 40 percent of his attempts from that area during this regular season, and in recent years, he's usually been around that percentage.
But that's not on a particularly gluttonous amount of shots, and the OKC scheme doesn't exactly let its backup big man hang around the perimeter. Part of the problem is Collison has never really been a willing shooter.
For evidence, one need look no further than OKC’s first possession, which ended with Collison receiving the ball on the right baseline and reluctantly hoisting a 17-footer that careened clumsily off the rim.
Such cynicism is, however, ripe for a refrain: This was, after all, just one game. Indeed, when you have arguably two of the planet’s ten best players at your disposal—including the NBA’s newly minted MVP—anything is possible.
The always-astute Royce Young exemplified exactly this sentiment in a recent post for his flagship site, Daily Thunder:
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.
Indeed, Young’s analysis may hold the key to the Thunder being able to knot—maybe even ultimately win—the series.
In San Antonio and OKC’s four regular-season meetings (all won by KD and Co.), there were five Thunder lineups that registered a positive net rating in at least five minutes of floor time (per NBA.com). Three of which share a pair of crucial things in common.
First, all three featured the backcourt tandem of Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson.
Second (and perhaps most important), all three boast Kevin Durant at power forward and Serge Ibaka at center.
The latter’s loss might well preclude the Thunder from employing a true small-ball approach. At the same time, the rudiments of a momentum-shifting template are there, in Jackson and Westbrook’s speedy perimeter presence and the mismatch nightmare posed by Durant at the four.
To those who’d posit Popovich keeping Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the floor, thereby punishing Durant on the block, a polite retort:
In any two-way positional mismatch, the advantage—making the other team adjust—tends to be on the side of the superhuman.
Short of their five-game loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder have never faced a team as skilled, as seasoned and as savvy as these San Antonio Spurs. They’re assassins in the purest sense of the word, now only emboldened by the smell of blood wrought by Ibaka’s absence.
All of which will ring harmlessly anecdotal should the Thunder come to understand the more important superlative: having the best five on the floor as often as possible.
NBA.com stats cited in this article require a subscription. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of May 20, unless otherwise noted.