The Spurs, The Thunder, and How Ibaka’s Injury Explains the WCF

Serge Ibaka injured his left calf—on a defensive play, of course—during the third quarter of the Thunder’s Game 6, series-ending victory over the Clippers. MRI results revealed a Grade 2 strain, which is expected to keep him out for the remainder of the postseason. The way the Thunder and the Spurs have reacted to this news leading up to their Game 1 matchup tonight has been quite different—and quite telling.

The Thunder were not happy, but still optimistic. GM Sam Presti referred to Ibaka’s “huge impact” on their team this season, but then shifted into more general terms, about how the team had been through ups and downs and “this is just another one that hopefully is going to make us better.” Unlikely in the short term, given the numbers — the Thunder were a +5.7 with Ibaka on the court, a -2.1 with him off it — but an expected reaction from a GM. The players? Much of the same, especially from the reigning MVP. “Serge is a guy who brings so much to our team,” Kevin Durant told ESPN. “A defensive wiz that comes in and hits that jump shot and blocks shots. But we have bigs to come in and try and make up for it, a few of them.”

Presti might call this just another up and down, the Thunder know it’s more than that.

Well, they can certainly try. But none have proven as effective as the 24-year-old Ibaka, hence why he got a four-year, $48 million extension in 2012. The same ESPN piece that quoted Durant was titled “THUNDER PLAYING A TWO-MAN GAME,” and while that might very well be the case on one side of the ball, it’s entirely untrue on the other. The Thunder scoring shouldn’t suffer much with Ibaka sidelined (although they somewhat surprisingly averaged a full 8.3 points per 48 more with him out there). But the defense—with Steven Adams and Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins making up Ibaka’s 34 minutes a night—certainly will. If anything, the case could be made that Ibaka deserved even more touches than he was getting, as 8.6 attempts (down from 12.1 during the regular season) for a guy shooting just under 62 percent seems low. But that doesn’t matter now.

If the Thunder are in fact a two-man team, and the fact that Westbrook and Durant have been responsible for 58 of the Thunder’s 104.5 points per game throughout the playoffs indicate as much (with Ibaka the third-leading scorer at 12.2) is just because Presti and co. wanted it that way. They re-signed Ibaka knowing full well it would likely come down to keeping either him or a third elite scoring threat in James Harden, and chose defense. Ibaka was intended to be the Thunder’s third most important player all along. So while Presti might call this just another up and down, the Thunder know it’s more than that. As do their opponents.

Which brings us to the Spurs, who in their own Spurs-being-Spurs way didn’t even believe Ibaka was hurt. Or at least not THAT hurt. Because, well, Gregg Popovich. So while Tony Parker said he’d have to see Ibaka sitting to believe it, Kawhi Leonard continued his indoctrination by stating “We’re still not sure if he’s going to play or not, but it doesn’t matter.” Exactly. The Spurs way is not predicated on anything the opponent does, or even who the opponent is. Yes, matchups matter, and yes, they’ll still need to figure out how to deal with Durant and Westbrook, but regardless of who’s out there, the mission does not change. Four wins away from a Finals rematch and facing a team who came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat them in six games just two years ago, the focus is already set.

Parker and Leonard don’t have to wait any longer. Ibaka didn’t even make the trip to San Antonio, assuring that he’s out for at least the first two games of the series. (Although wouldn’t it be such a Pop move to…you know what, nevermind.) There’s a much better chance of there being a snake in the Thunder locker room during this series than there is of Ibaka being there. Will his absence affect the Thunder this year as much as Westbrook’s did last year? In the two-man game, it won’t. But, as the Spurs well know, basketball is best played by five.


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