The Oklahoma City Thunder know that they will have to be at their best against the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. Although they won all four regular season matchups with San Antonio, the playoffs are a different story. The Spurs have been one of the most consistent teams in the NBA over the last 20 years and have seemed to master the art of resting during the regular season and being fully prepared for the playoffs. Because of this, San Antonio has been playing some of their best ball of the year over the last nine games. After a slow start in the first round against Dallas they have found their groove and will be a tough test for the Thunder.
On Friday the Thunder got some bad news that will make the matchup with the Spurs even harder. Serge Ibaka will most likely miss the remainder of the playoffs after suffering a strained calf in game six against the Clippers. Ibaka is an integral part of the Thunder and his injury is a major setback. Aside from being the third option offensively after Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Serge is the anchor of OKC’s sixth ranked defense (103.9 defensive rating during the regular season).
There is no denying that this is a major blow to Oklahoma City’s title chances. Without Ibaka the Thunder will have some big obstacles to overcome. It seems that all may be lost, and what was such an amazing season could once again be a disappointment after another playoff injury to a key contributor. Before Thunder fans give up on this team, think about some of the possibilities that could still make this run a success; at the very least one that will be fun to watch and maybe even answer some lingering questions about the team’s future.
The first player that comes to mind when thinking about the Ibaka injury is big man Steven Adams. The young center out of Pitt had an impressive rookie campaign. Expectations were not very high for Adams because the Thunder had been so successful with their big man rotation in the previous season. Right away Adams showed that his energy would make an impact on every game he played in. As the season progressed he saw more and more playing time in big games and situations. He showed that not only does he bring energy to the floor but he is a terrific rebounder and also has good touch around the rim. In the playoffs Adams has taken another leap becoming a key contributor off the bench, both offensively and defensively. He has blocked a shot in each of the last five games and also had five blocks in the crucial game six of the Memphis series. Adams is certainly not Serge Ibaka, but if he is able to continue his physical play down low he could have a major impact in helping the Thunder take down the Spurs. Adams is also viewed as the center of the future for the Thunder and this opportunity will be great experience for him moving forward and could solidify the Thunder’s feelings about him.
For years now OKC fans have been clamoring for Scott Brooks to go small with his lineup. The idea initially called for Ibaka to be moved to center and Kevin Durant to power forward. With Ibaka out the Thunder still have a chance to go small. They will likely start out with Perkins at center and start either Nick Collison or Adams at power forward. They will probably stay away from the small lineup to start the games so they can match up with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. The Thunder will likely go to a smaller lineup when they bring in the bench unit. Moving KD to the four more in this series would force the Spurs to go small as well or risk being even more overmatched athletically than they already are. This will likely result in either Boris Diaw or Kawhi Leonard playing power forward and guarding Durant. The biggest advantage the Thunder would have in this scenario would be with their guards. The lineup would probably include both Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson. With those two on the perimeter there would be a major advantage over the smaller, slower Spurs guards. This was evident in the four regular season games between the two teams when Reggie Jackson averaged 21 points per game. This would also give the Thunder a chance to play some of the younger players who haven’t seen much playing time so far this postseason. Jeremy Lamb would be a perfect fit as a shooting guard or small forward in this lineup because he has the size and athleticism to guard both twos and threes and is also a knockdown outside shooter which is perfect for a four around one type of lineup. Another young player who could benefit from this would be Perry Jones. Like Lamb, he hasn’t seen much playing time in the playoffs but with his size, athleticism, and versatility, he can also play at multiple positions. In a smaller lineup he can play power forward, allowing Durant to move down to the three, taking some the defensive pressure off the MVP. In a bigger lineup, Jones can play small forward with two of the Thunder’s traditional bigs at the four and five. This would give the Thunder size up front in a lineup that could feature Jackson and Westbrook at the guard spots. They could even slide Durant to the shooting guard spot and run out the huge lineup that they featured during a stretch earlier this year.
It is not a sure thing that Scott Brooks elects to make these moves. He has shown in the past to be a bit stubborn with his rotations and also hasn’t been the most trusting of young players in big games.
It is nearly impossible to put a positive spin on the Serge Ibaka injury. He is an all-star caliber player and he means so much to the Thunders chances. It will be very difficult to get a series win without such a key player but there is no reason to count OKC out. With the young talent on their bench and the possibilities of their small mall lineups, they can definitely give the Spurs a run for their money.