Now that the Western Conference Finals are here, the team at Thunderous Intentions will be providing readers with their answers to all the tough questions. Five writers, five questions. May we present to you the Oklahoma City Thunder: Five on Five.
1. Can the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs without Serge Ibaka.
Mark Bruty – Editor: It is going to be a lot more difficult than with him, that’s for sure. Serge Ibaka brings a lot more than just defensive pressure to the table. He is a terrific defender of the pick and roll and the rim, he rebounds well and it a solid third option who can space the floor. This is going to impact the Thunder not just at the rim, but all over the court. IF the Thunder can find a way to keep Tony Parker out of the paint and the San Antonio bigs away from the glass, they are a chance. The Thunder have the talent to beat the Spurs even without Ibaka.
Eli J. Friedman – Staff Writer: Yes. No doubt about it. Westbrook–and Jackson–are the ones who dominate the Spurs every time they play. San Antonio doesn’t have many guys to throw at Durant, so expect him to have a big series as well. Besides Duncan, the Spurs don’t really have a dominate post presence. So, going small with a line-up of Westbrook, Jackson, Butler, Durant and Collison/Adams/Perk, should get the job done.
Jeremy Lambert – Staff Writer: Yes, but it will be much more difficult. A lot will depend on how Scott Brooks handles the rotation. Ibaka is irreplaceable on both ends of the court. He’s a good finisher around the rim, has become very reliable from mid-range, and is a shot blocking machine. I still think Perry Jones should get some playing time in this series to try and help replace Ibaka’s offense, but we’ll see what happens. If Jones doesn’t see the court often, Kendrick Perkins will have to do a great job on Tim Duncan defensively while Nick Collison and Steven Adams will have to continue their strong play from game six against the Clippers.
Chris Shifflett – Staff Writer: Of course. The Spurs don’t have the legs to keep up with this Thunder team. It’s when the Thunder hit the NBA Finals, be it against the Pacers or the Heat (most likely the Heat), where they will run into serious trouble.
Michael Newberry – Staff Writer: Tough question, but could we beat them without Russell? Having to face that question most of this season and being able to do it, my first thought would be yes of course they can. However, this being the playoffs and not regular season, the tone of the question changes. Serge spaces the floor with his shooting ability and shuts down opponents at the rim. I do not think that we will have the question answered in game 1 because OKC doesn’t always have their actual adjustment down right away. So through the course of the series I say they find a solution and go with it. The thing they are good at is having the Russell Westbrook mentality of here’s how I’m going to do something then driving the point home with some tenacity.
2. Who is the most important player in the Thunder vs Spurs Western Conference Finals Series?
MB: Reggie Jackson. Serge Ibaka is a huge loss and it is going to take a big effort from the rest of the Thunder crew (Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Perry Jones III and Kendrick Perkins) but Reggie Jackson may be the most important player this time around. We know what we are going to get from Durant and Westbrook, but Reggie is going to need to play a huge supporting role as well as limit the impact of Tony Parker which goes a long way to stopping the Spurs.
EJF: Steven Adams/Nick Collison. One of these two have to fill the void of Ibaka, and I think they will. We saw the two produce against the Clippers in Game 6, so we know they are capable of producing big minutes. We will see just how good Steven Adams is in this series.
JL: This is going to be a cop out answer, but it’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Without Ibaka, Durant and Westbrook will be relied upon to carry the offense even more than they already do. What’s scary about these two is that they can actually do it. If told you that Durant and Westbrook could each score 50 in a game, you might think I’m crazy, but you wouldn’t have me sent to an insane asylum because everyone knows that there’s actually a chance of that happening given the offensive talents of both players. Without Ibaka though, their defense will have to be even better, because their rim protector is no longer watching their back.
CS: Westbrook. Yes, Durant is the MVP, but Westbrook’s ability to effectively balance facilitation and aggression usually makes the difference between wins and losses. The Thunder are better overall when he’s getting everyone else involved as well.
MN: The most important person in this series besides Tony Parker’s hammy is how Scott Brooks adjusts to fill Ibaka’s role. The Spurs, being an extremely fundamental team, just gained a big man advantage. Not that their big are now that much better than OKC’s, but they come in having the luxury to have played together where the Thunder will fiddle around with a new rotation. Who will come in a defend the multiple pick and rolls, protect the rim, and rebound all game for a potential 7-game series? The Thunder are equipped to handle the loss, but will their new mold gel before it is too late?
3. Will we see Jeremy Lamb or is he forgotten in Scott Brooks’ plans?
MB: Although he is young and relatively inexperienced, he can still be of value. Since we haven’t seen much of him during the first two series, it is hard to think we will all of a sudden see him for the Western Conference Finals. With Caron Butler and Derek Fisher performing admirably and also having that experience factor, I doubt Lamb sees much action.
EJF: We won’t. But, what we will see is Perry Jones III. I wouldn’t be shocked if Brooks starts Jones III to keep the chemistry of the bench and starters. Jeremy Lamb is a valuable piece, and I don’t understand why Brooks keeps him on the bench, but with the way Fisher and Butler played last series, I don’t see the lineup and rotation changing.
JL: As a huge Jeremy Lamb supporter, I’d love to see him get 12-15 minutes a game, but I’ve given up on that happening. It’s a shame really because Lamb played very good minutes all season and could be used to pick up some offensive slack. The biggest shame though is that Lamb should be a big part of OKC’s future and getting him playoff experience now could benefit him and the team in the long run.
CS: We usually do end up seeing Lamb get minutes once someone is hurt, especially if “small ball” is the idea against the old legs of the Spurs.
MN: I’m going to say no. Scott Brooks hasn’t used him in two series in any major facet. Though it might be true that he comes in to try and provide a spark, I don’t see him posting any meaningful minutes. He is a great addition to the Thunder’s small ball lineup, but how he handles himself seems a bigger question than an adjustment. He is a shooter. A shooter that sometimes is in his head too much and can go on major shooting slumps like he did to start the season. When a shooter doesn’t see the ball go through the hoop it affects other parts of his game. His off-ball defense is solid, but his lack of bulk hurts him when guarding any size at the guard position. But here’s to hopeful inclusion!
4. What’s next for the Thunder if they lose this series?
MB: Much speculation will be around the dynamic duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and whether they can win a Championship together. There will be some talk about needing more pieces or playing the ones they have and of course, Scott Brooks will be a very hot topic. With Serge Ibaka out, not many think the Thunder can win, but it won’t stop the critics if they lose. The Thunder have some draft choices and some interesting pieces – changes will happen.
EJF: A lot of criticism and doubt. With Serge or not, the Thunder organization will really take a lot of heat for not getting to the finals. Bill Simmons thinks that the window of winning a championship is almost over, and I don’t disagree. As loyal as we think Durant and Westbrook are, if the Thunder can’t get to the finals, I could see a lot of skepticism about the future in Oklahoma City.
JL: The Ibaka injury obviously changes things. I don’t think too much will change, other than not re-signing Thabo Sefolosha and possibly looking to trade Kendrick Perkins expiring contract. The core of Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka will be back, Scott Brooks will likely be back, and they’ll still have a lot of young talent like Lamb, Jones, Adams, Jackson, Roberson, plus two more first round picks. And don’t sleep on Sam Presti on draft day. Two first picks, Kevin Martin’s trade exception, and plenty of pieces to deal could land OKC in the top five of a very deep draft.
CS: There’s no telling where Presti is involved. A lot of people thought the Thunder killed their chance at an NBA Championship by trading Harden, but if anything is killing the Thunder’s chances, it’s the injury bug. Although I have a feeling Sefolosha is gone after this season.
MN: I believe this is the last time we will see this lineup regardless of winning or losing. The chances of losing Thabo feel pretty high. The Thunder have brought in a lot of young talent at the guard position the past few years, and will do so again this summer. So there’s reason to believe that Thabo won’t be resigned. That’s at the very least too. What will the Thunder do about Kendrick Perkins? Steven Adams has pushed him and continues to see a minute increase. The young center is strong, athletic and has great hands for a post man. He also can finish around the rim, a skill that we have seen Perkins struggle with the past few years. Derek Fisher is also retiring at the end of the year so the bench outlook will experience some mixing up and feeling out. So, I foresee changes and the first will be more youthful insertion into an already explosive lineup primed for more athleticism. Firepower!
5. Could the Thunder win it all?
MB: Again, without Serge Ibaka, the path becomes a lot tougher. Even if they manage to get past the San Antonio Spurs, they will face either the Indian Pacers of the Miami Heat and both series’ would be a huge battle. The Thunder have the game’s MVP and Westbrook in career best form. They have the talent, the depth and a dream – they can win it all – Championships are never easy to come by.
EJF: As long as Durant and Westbrook stay healthy and play well, yes. With the way Miami is playing, it will be tough but they have to get by San Antonio first(which they should). The Heat are playing great basketball right now, but if the Thunder can like they did in Games 2, 3, and 6 against the Clippers, they can beat anyone.
JL: Yes. I’m never going to doubt a team with Durant and Westbrook, two of the top five players in the league. The Ibaka injury lessens their chances, but when Durant and Westbrook are in sync, and they were in sync following Ibaka leaving game six, then they are almost unstoppable.
CS: Probably not without Ibaka. As much as I hate to admit this, I didn’t really see anyone stopping a Heat 3-peat this year anyway. I still think OKC is a year or two away. But if they can keep Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka together once Adams gets developed, Jackson could step in the other guard spot (once he gets a little more consistent), and that would be a starting 5 hard to bet against.
MN: Absolutely they can win it all. The Thunder have faced and overcome many challenges this year. Whether thriving without Russell for most of the season, replacing veterans starters with younger ones while they heal from injury, or moving past Joey Crawford outbursts. This team has surprised at times with what they’ve been able to handle. They still have two of the top 10 players in the league and one of them is this year’s MVP. Easy answer, yes they can win it all. Will they do it is another question. Adjusting to yet another new lineup will be tough. This late into the season and facing a team that has been together since the Stone Age makes it seem like the Thunder’s destiny is already written for them. However, history books aren’t written until all things have been decided. The fortune will favor the bold and I believe the Thunder are the not holding anything back type, right Russ?