Would Serge Ibaka Give OKC Thunder a Fighting Chance vs. San Antonio Spurs?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 13:  Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on the court against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on May 13, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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It once sounded like a baseless hypothetical question: How would Serge Ibaka have changed the Western Conference Finals? 

But now it's a very real consideration, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:

Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti even released a statement (h/t Wojnarowski) explaining the changed prognosis, stating, "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."

So here we are, no longer dealing in speculation about what might have been, now focusing our attention on what may be.

The revelation is a dangerous source of optimism for Thunder fans. It's the kind of good news that can't help but get hopes up. And there's plenty of reason for those hopes to be sky-high.

And not just because of Ibaka.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 21:  Tony Parker #9 Manu Ginobili #20 and Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder n Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 21, 2014 at the AT&T
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Let's not forget that Kevin Durant is due for a couple of signature MVP games, the kind of 40-point explosions for which he's become known. He and sidekick Russell Westbrook are bound to recover from a 13-of-40 shooting performance in Game 2. The collective offense is destined to score more than 77 points.

Even if Ibaka weren't to attempt a return—and it most certainly appears that he is—the law of averages alone should make us think twice about considering this series a done deal.

We may be talking about a young team, but we're also talking about one with plenty of postseason experience. That experience just happens to include a sequence from 2012 in which OKC recovered from a 2-0 WCF deficit to upend these same San Antonio Spurs with four straight wins.

James Harden—now playing a starring role for the Houston Rockets—had a lot to do with that turnaround.

So did Ibaka.

In Game 4 of that series, he made 11-of-11 field-goal attempts and dropped 26 points on the Spurs. The Thunder went on to win that game 109-103. It may be asking a bit much of the power forward to expect similar impact this time around. Even if he's healthy enough to play a meaningful role, he reasons to be a little out of sorts initially.

Should his rhythm return in short order, however, we shouldn't be surprised to see Ibaka emerge once more as OKC's third or fourth option on offense.

Even in that best-case scenario, scoring may be the least of Ibaka's contributions.


Rim Protection

The Spurs have scored 122 and 112 points through their first two games against the Thunder. Even when Oklahoma City's offense finds its way, it can hardly afford to give up those kind of totals. Thus far it looks as though the Thunder have finally encountered an offense that rivals theirs in terms of sheer explosiveness.

On paper you might wonder whether a couple of blocks per game could really change all that. If the Spurs score 118 and 108, they still win Games 1 and 2 handily.

But it's not blocks alone that make Ibaka so valuable. 

It's his presence that serves as a deterrent even when a block isn't officially tallied. In a special to ESPN.com, Royce Young explains the ripple effect that has on OKC's defensive schemes:

The Thunder have been an elite defensive team the past few seasons, largely by deploying a simple scheme that attacks pick-and-rolls aggressively, understanding that there's help waiting at the rim. Get beat? No problem. That's basically just a block assist for Ibaka, teeing him up to send one into the third row.

The concept of help is an important one. It's what allows OKC's perimeter defenders to be more aggressive, worrying less about collapsing to the paint and more about staying in front of their assignment.

Having that kind of insurance in the paint empowers guys such as Durant and Westbrook to be themselves on the defensive end, pestering and playing passing lanes, turning defense into offense and jump-starting the transition game.

Without Ibaka around, the Thunder have been lulled into a kind of defensive conservatism. Tim Duncan beat them up in the paint during Game 1, scoring 27 points on the night. Packing the paint in Game 2 just meant that shooters were free to roam the perimeter—namely Danny Green, who scored 21 points on seven made three-pointers.

OKC's defense was great during the regular season. It ranked third league-wide in opponents' field-goal percentage, giving up an average of just 43.6 percent. When Ibaka is playing, this club's length and athleticism makes it difficult for teams such as San Antonio to hum along and move the ball at will.


The Emotional Game

The Spurs may have seen Ibaka's return coming, but that doesn't mean the Thunder saw the same. This would be the kind of invigorating surprise that could really spark OKC. And the Thunder desperately need a spark.

More than any X's and O's consideration, Oklahoma City has been playing like a team that's already beaten. There's been something missing in its energy level and something lacking in its execution. 

It's impossible to measure what kind of psychological impact Ibaka's return would have, but as human beings we can certainly speculate. Where there is hopelessness and doubt, effort usually suffers as a consequence. When the odds turn around, there's more incentive to try.

Whether Ibaka's presence alone really changes the odds, it will be perceived that way. And that perception may be what matters most. If the Thunder think this makes a difference, maybe they'll actually play like it.

We haven't seen Oklahoma City anywhere near its best so far. Even when accounting for Ibaka's absence, these guys should be playing much better. Head coach Scott Brooks may be the popular scapegoat, but this team is just making uncharacteristic mistakes.

Consider Durant's explanation of his role in San Antonio's lead ballooning at the end of the second quarter in Game 2. After the game, he told reporters:

I messed the game up at the end of the second quarter. I got hit on the screen and Danny Green got open for a 3. I over-helped, and he got another 3. And then Ginobili hit a 3. All those plays was on me. It was my fault, and I take full responsibility for it. Wish they wouldn’t have happened. I can’t get them back now. But I’ll take that one.

Durant looks and sounds like a defeated man. He had a bad game, but you'd think he'd had a downright terrible season based on his demeanor. He's also all but admitting these are glitches. This isn't OKC's standard operating procedure. This isn't how the team—or Brooks—conducts business.

These are mental lapses.

Ibaka's return would help in any number of tangible ways. But it may be the intangible mental side of the equation that yields the biggest dividends.

The Thunder need this return.

Yes, it's for the game plan. But it's also for peace of mind.