By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO – Thunder coach Scott Brooks delivered a straightforward message to the San Antonio Spurs, some of whom apparently manifested visions of injured Oklahoma City power forward Serge Ibaka swooping into the arena and swatting shots as if he were Godzilla.
That, obviously, didn’t happen, and it’s not going to happen.
“Contrary to what San Antonio was thinking, he’s not coming back,” Brooks said of Ibaka, who is expected to miss the remainder of the playoffs, regardless of how deep the Thunder go. “He’s not coming through those doors.”
Ibaka wasn’t even in the building. He was back home, relegated to resting his damaged left calf muscle and watching Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on TV. Or at least as much of it as he could stand as the Spurs ran a layup drill through a wide-open paint in the opening half on their way to a 122-105 victory.
In the aftermath, maybe Brooks’ message was intended more for his own club. It is a horrible time to be without your chiseled, 6-foot-10 defensive eraser and offensive safety valve. Ibaka’s absence seemed to serve as a giant mind tease early on as the Thunder looked lost defensively in just their fourth game in four years without Ibaka.
“Your body tells you a few things, just send them Serge’s way,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “We have to get out of that mindset. Tonight’s the first night playing without him, so we have to figure a few things out.”
Tim Duncan was the beneficiary of an OKC starting lineup that included the considerably less-athletic Nick Collison playing in the 24-year-old Ibaka’s starting spot next to Kendrick Perkins. That lineup was a bust from the get-go on both ends. OKC tried to get Collison comfortable early, but he launched two hellacious bricks from either baseline on the Thunder’s opening few possessions.
The other end was a Texas massacre, save the bloody mess of a chainsaw for the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel for which the Spurs have become famous.
Duncan had 21 of his 27 points in the first half, going 9-for-11 from the floor, and 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the opening quarter. He had eight points in the first five minutes. His first bucket was an 18-footer. The eight baskets that followed in the first half came from no deeper than eight feet and four were no farther than 3-feet from the rim.
Imagine the 38-year-old Duncan’s delight to work against the Thunder’s 20-year-old rookie backup center Steven Adams, a mostly impressive youngster who saw just 17 minutes after logging 40 in the Game 6 clincher over the Clippers. He acknowledged he “screwed up” on pick-and-roll coverages and will have to be better.
The Spurs scored 66 of their points in the paint — 20 more than OKC typically gives up with Ibaka on the floor. They had 38 at halftime, more than the Thunder managed the entire game (32).
“Well, we play team defense, we don’t just rely on Serge,” said Kevin Durant, who had 28 points and found himself checking Duncan at different times. “He does a great job blocking shots, but it’s all because of our team defense.”
It wasn’t all a horror flick, and the first nine minutes of the third quarter is the example the Thunder will look to duplicate if they’re going to make this a series. It’s the only quarter that OKC held San Antonio below 30 points — 22 on 8-for-22 shooting. Combined with Russell Westbrook‘s accelerated aggressiveness to attack the rim, the Thunder, once trailing 63-48, led 78-77 after Durant’s 8-foot runner with 4:44 to go.
Brooks spent the first half experimenting with different lineups and twice had success in the first and second quarters with small-ball fivesomes. But as the Thunder plowed ahead in the third quarter with the original starting lineup, Brooks may have stuck with them just a bit too long.
In a flash, the lead was gone for good. Manu Ginobili got in the lane for a floater, Duncan tossed in another layup as Westbrook missed a couple tired-looking shots and turned it over.
But the defensive blue print is there, even if it emerged for only a small window of time in the opener. It was the only quarter the Thunder scored more fastbreak points than the Spurs because they were finally able to get into transition off missed shots and four of the Spurs’ 10 turnovers.
“We just got to do a better job of closing the paint off,” said Westbrook, who had 25 points, 12 in the third quarter, and seven assists. “We did a better job in the second half of just putting more pressure on them, making it tough for them to get inside the paint.”
Now they must figure out how to sustain it. Because everybody knows Ibaka isn’t walking through that door.