A year after losing Russell Westbrook to injury during the playoffs, the Thunder have lost Serge Ibaka for the remainder of the 2014 postseason. The announcement coming around 5 p.m. on this Friday May 16, 2014 when Sam Presti released his official statement.
This injury looks to have happened on, what seemed like an innocent play, when Ibaka stumbled over Chris Paul and fell out of bounds. Afterwards Ibaka got up and, not soon after, walked to the locker room and did not return to the game.
Listening in to the conference call that Sam Presti had with a group of gathered media over the radio, Ibaka’s injury was classified as a Grade 2 strain. Presti said, “The recovery process is lengthy because the re-injury risk is exceptionally high.” In true Thunder fashion of speaking in openly vague and non-definitive statements, Presti goes on to say that Ibaka’s timetable plans to extend past where the season were to end. Never confirming the question of 0% chance of return, but never promising anything. However, all things considering, it looks to be true that the Thunder have lost their great rim protector.
This loss is tough and it will affect the Thunder’s ability to alter and even erase shots. Serge led the league again for the 4th year in a row in total blocks (219). That’s not even counting the amount of times he changed shots. Though his numbers are down in comparison to regular season play, he did a remarkable job in containing the freak of nature that Blake Griffin presents. He will be missed.
However, the conference call left fans with the tone of ‘We’ve been here before. Now we have to overcome.’ So on to who’s up to replace him. Let’s take a look first at what will need replacing. According to NBA.com, this postseason Serge’s averages are as follows: 12.2 points on 61.6% shooting, 7.3 rebounds and 2.23 blocks in 13 playoff games. During the regular season he notched career highs in points (15.1) and rebounds (8.8). He is often considered very consistent and will somehow always end up shooting a high percentage and finish right around those averages every game. Never peaking out with absurd number of points or boards, besides the occasional triple double threat when he starts a-blocking.
Now onto the candidates:
Steven Adams: This would seem the most likely of options to replace ‘Air Congo.’ Of the Thunder big men not named Ibaka or Perkins, Adams has the most minutes, boards, blocks, and points per game. Now translating that to actual game time, the Thunder might go small and have Adams play the 5 so he can play on the interior and screen more efficiently. The thing about Adams is that he does not stretch the floor the way Serge did. He may have better hands and touch around the rim, but the thing he lacks is the ability to consistently space the floor with his shot. His style of play is best suited to pound the glass and bang bodies with the Spurs’ bigs. So labeling Adams as the replacement might not be the most accurate of statements, but he will most likely get the increase in minutes first.
Nick Collison: The savvy vet seems the most ready to fulfill the shoes of the primary 4-man. He has a shot that will the Spurs should respect and does well screening the opposition to open up free shots. The other thing that he brings is a passing ability. Backdoor cuts and fancy bounce passes stock will rise in the coming series. Nick does well because he is unselfish and, at times, aggressive going to the basket. The problem here is shot blocking. Charges, yes, but altering shots isn’t his best attribute. Thus far in the playoffs, Collison has compiled 6 blocks which is pretty low compared to Ibaka’s 29 and Adams 17 turnaways. That does come in 60+ less minutes of playing time, so it remains to be seen how effective he could possibly be against the Spurs.
Perry Jones: This youngster could assert himself as instrumental moving forward. Athletically speaking, Jones III is the closest resemblance to Ibaka that the Thunder have that is not KD. He has shown the ability to space the floor by knocking down corner threes and is extremely unselfish while on the court. He can jump out of the gym and is quick enough to handle the stretch 4’s the Spurs will throw at him. A big knock against him is when he doesn’t involve himself in plays, he tends to disappear and not threaten any defender. He can be passive enough that he gets lost in the fold and won’t be noticed until he skies for a rebound. Maybe he will lay some foundation and see an increase in minutes moving forward.
The other option is to not increase another’s time, but go smaller more often and swapping out bigs when need arises. Play Durant at power forward and increase the pace of the game. Something OKC does very well is play small ball that is quick and strikes more often than their patented dribble the clock down and jack a three offense. The fundamental Spurs though will counter though and that’s where Scott Brooks’ and his staff will have to look at what they have and make the change. It will come down how focused the Thunder are defensively.
It will be an interesting first few days. With game 1 on Monday, the Thunder are forced to act quickly and deliberately as they shift their focus to the Western Conference Finals.