By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Oklahoma City Thunder suffered a significant injury blow to their title hopes Friday with power forward Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s premiere shot blockers, likely to miss the rest of the postseason with a Grade 2 strain of his left calf.
The Thunder opens the Western Conference finals Monday night on the road against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. Ibaka limped off the Staples Center floor in the third quarter of Thursday’s series-clinching victory of the Los Angeles Clippers. He immediately headed to the locker room and did not return. An MRI exam on Friday revealed the strain.
Through the second round of the playoffs, Ibaka was averaging 12.2 ppg — shooting 61.6 percent from the floor (69-for-112) — plus 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 33.9 mpg. Monday’s game will be only the second time this season the Thunder will play without their 6-foot-10 paint protector.
“We are obviously disappointed for Serge, as he is a tremendous competitor,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “We know how badly he wants to be on the court with his teammates.”
It’s the second consecutive postseason that the Thunder has had to deal with a key season-ending injury. Last year point guard Russell Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee during the first round and Oklahoma City was bounced from the playoffs in the semifinals against Memphis.
Oklahoma City defeated the Spurs in the West finals in 2012, 4-2, after losing the first two games at San Antonio. Repeating that feat just became tougher.
Ibaka, 24, played 81 games during the regular season and recorded career-highs with averages of 15.1 ppg and 8.8 rpg while leading the league in total blocks for the fourth consecutive season with 219. He’s been as durable as they come, missing just two games over the last four regular and postseasons.
The loss throws a wrench into coach Scott Brooks‘ rotation. Veteran backup forward-center Nick Collison, whose minutes were limited in the Clippers series, is a candidate to start at forward alongside starting center Kendrick Perkins. More minutes will likely be available to emerging rookie backup center Steven Adams, who had monstrous Game 6 in Los Angeles with 10 points and 11 rebounds in 40 minutes. Little-used forward Perry Jones and center Hasheem Thabeet are also available to absorb spot minutes if needed.
Brooks could also employ a smaller lineup at times that has been successful in which Kevin Durant plays the power forward position, however pitting Durant defensively on Duncan might not be a strategy Brooks will want to use often.
“We’ve had this group together for quite a while,” Presti said. “We’ve been through some ups and downs and this one will only make us better.”
The Spurs are also dealing with an injury to a key player, although the left hamstring issue that hampered point guard Tony Parker in their series-clinching Game 5 against Portland does not appear to be serious. Parker said the Grade 1 strain will not keep him out of Game 1.