The San Antonio Spurs could not have looked more comfortable during their 112-77 drubbing of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 on Wednesday.
Their defense was rock solid, holding OKC below 20 points in three of the four quarters. The Thunder shot a dreadful 39.3 percent from the field and a laughably low 10 percent from beyond the arc.
Their two superstars—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—were anything but super. Collectively, those two shot 32.5 percent from the field (13-of-40) and cashed just one of nine three-point attempts. Spurs shooting guard Danny Green drained seven all by his lonesome.
As a result of the offensive nightmare from OKC and overall dominance from San Antonio, the Spurs have taken a commanding 2-0 series lead.
The Thunder were forced to head back to Oklahoma, licking their wounds. They’ve been completely out of sorts without Serge Ibaka and are searching desperately for someone to step up and produce.
The NBA’s leading shot-blocker was ruled out for the remainder of the 2014 playoffs due to a calf injury. According to a report from USA Today’s Sam Amick, though, Ibaka's status has been upgraded to “day-to-day.”
Thunder general manager Sam Presti also said, “We can’t rule him out,” when asked about the possibility of the big man playing in Game 3, per Amick.
These two Western Conference juggernauts won’t square off again until Sunday. If Ibaka continues to improve from a health standpoint in the meantime, there’s a chance he’ll play.
Would his presence manage to get the Thunder into the win column? Does OKC stand any chance of beating the Spurs without him?
It’s tough to rule out Durant—2014’s Most Valuable Player—but coming back from a 2-0 series deficit doesn’t happen often.
Seeds: Oklahoma City Thunder No. 2; San Antonio Spurs No. 1
Series: Spurs lead 2-0
Schedule for Series: Game 3 Sunday, May 25, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 4 Tuesday, May 27, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5* Thursday, May 29, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 6* Saturday, May 31, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 7* Monday, June 2, 9 p.m. ET (TNT)
* = If necessary
Key Storyline for Oklahoma City Thunder
The announcement that Ibaka would miss the remainder of the postseason to nurse his injured calf took the wind out of OKC’s sails. The Thunder lost Games 1 and 2 by a combined 52-point margin. They’ve looked genuinely outclassed, but Presti believes there’s a chance Ibaka could return to the hardwood.
“The abundance of blood and therefore swelling in Serge’s calf has reduced substantially and unexpectedly, allowing a level of movement and stability not thought possible after the initial diagnosis,” the GM said in a news release, per Amick. “At present, Serge has yet to complete a full basketball workout, but is walking and doing light basketball drills.”
OKC needs something to spark better overall play. At this juncture, Ibaka’s unexpected return would seem to be the team’s only hope.
“Doing light basketball drills” doesn’t hint that the 24-year-old is ready to compete on the Western Conference Finals stage. However, even a brief appearance to boost morale—a la Golden State Warriors forward David Lee in the 2013 playoffs—could be just what Scott Brooks’ crew needs.
If that isn’t a feasible outcome for Sunday, the role players will have to step up and provide a scoring punch. They can’t continue being nonfactors. It’s that simple.
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
Even if Ibaka manages to make a heroic comeback, the Spurs are going to be ready to play.
Head coach Gregg Popovich, for instance, has already been preparing for Ibaka’s return. He had the following sarcastic response to the injury update, per the San Antonio Express-News’ Dan McCarney:
San Antonio just has to keep playing its game. With Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and others, the Spurs have a plethora of weapons who can reach double-digit points and run up the score in a hurry. They racked up 27 assists on 41 made field goals in Game 2. That’s a testament to their unselfishness and overall team attitude.
Pop’s guys can’t fall into a trap by allowing the Ibaka news to rattle their focus. Of course, that’s not a big concern with this veteran, experienced group. Still, the Thunder will be out to avenge two ugly losses now that they’ll be playing in front of their home fans.
The mere thought of getting Ibaka back could light a fire under Durant and Co. The Spurs can’t afford to take them lightly and give them their confidence back.
Since there’s no guarantee at this time that Ibaka will be ready to suit up, OKC’s biggest X-factor moving forward is the supporting cast.
Steven Adams has to continue hustling his rear end off to get some easy garbage points by crashing the offensive glass.
Thabo Sefolosha—whose stats for the series are zero points, zero assists, zero blocks, one steal and two rebounds—has to get back to doing the little things that make him a valuable asset. (Assuming Coach Brooks doesn’t bench him for prolonged stretches again.)
Reggie Jackson, who is clearly the more favorable option over Sefolosha, needs an offensive outburst against San Antonio to resurface. He averaged 21.3 points per game against the Spurs during the regular season, and while he’s been efficient in the Western Conference Finals (shooting 55.6 percent after two games), the Thunder need more from him.
As for Pop’s roster, Boris Diaw will continue to be an unsung hero. His versatility allows him to play in conventional lineups as well as small-ball ones. No matter what Coach Brooks decides to go with, Pop can easily counter his rotations with Diaw. The 32-year-old can knock down treys and bully smaller guys in the post. He’s an underrated reason for the Spurs’ control of this series.
Key Matchup: Tony Parker vs. Russell Westbrook
In the series thus far, Parker is shooting 55.2 percent from the field. Westbrook, meanwhile, is shooting 35.6 percent. It’s not hard to guess which guy’s team is winning the series based on those numbers.
The Thunder are at their best when Westbrook is slashing to the bucket, scoring efficiently and setting up teammates. When he gets frustrated, jacks up ill-advised three-pointers and triggers San Antonio’s fast break, he’s a genuine liability.
OKC’s floor general needs to rein himself in, because Parker is dominating the point guard battle right now.
Dictating pace and orchestrating the offense have to be the priorities for each guy moving forward.
Unlike Parker, though, Westbrook has the luxury of getting himself going defensively. He's an elite on-ball defender when he isn't gambling for steals, so he needs to focus his energy on that end and let his scoring output come through the flow of the offense.
It would be surprising if Ibaka returns to action as soon as Game 3. We may see that happen as a way to boost the team’s spirits, but anything more than that would be shocking.
At the very least, the home crowd's energy should be able to feed Durant and Westbrook. Those two also can’t possibly be worse than they were in Game 2. So that’s a positive.
Given how San Antonio has trounced the Thunder in two straight games, it’s hard to imagine OKC cutting into the series deficit unless KD and Westbrook have transcendent games—which is still a genuine possibility.
However, the coaching battle between Pop and Brooks can be compared to that between a great white shark and a monk seal. As Chad from Wedding Crashers would say, “It’s not even fair. It’s like fishing with dynamite.”
Brooks can’t outcoach Pop, which leaves the outcome of games up to sheer talent rather than X's and O's for Oklahoma City. Without a relatively healthy Ibaka, the Spurs have OKC's number.
Prediction: Spurs defeat Thunder 109-103