By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — When Serge Ibaka was ruled out for the Western Conference finals with a strained left calf, it was an obvious blow to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chances of defeating the San Antonio Spurs.
But does a 52-point differential (122-105 and 112-77) stem solely from the Ibaka Effect? Without the rock-solid, 6-foot-10 Ibaka bumping Tim Duncan on post-ups and fiercely meeting Tony Parker on penetrations and Spurs players rolling through the lane, had the Thunder been reduced from title contender to also-ran without their starting power forward?
Well, in Game 3, the theoretical might become the real. Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Ibaka’s Grade 2 left calf strain has substantially improved to the point that he is now being listed as day-to-day. Prior to the start of the Western Conference finals the team announced he would be out for the remainder of the postseason.
The raw numbers profoundly suggest that the Thunder was substantially weakened, particularly defensively without Ibaka, and Duncan likely wouldn’t argue. Just look at the difference:
DUNCAN vs THUNDER
Regular season 2014 West finals
MPG 31.3 29.0
PPG 14.8 (high: 17) 16.5 (high: 27)
FG% 43.4 52.7
%PIIP* 54.2 61.5
PIIP** 8.0 14.0
OffRtg 93.1 130.8
DefRtg 106.5 96.2
NetRtg -13.5 34.6
*Percentage of points scored in the paint; **average of points scored per game in the paint
The Spurs have scored 120 points in the paint in the first two games of this series. They scored 166 points in the paint in four regular-season games, all won by the Thunder.
Within the Thunder organization, hope existed that veterans Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and rookie Steven Adams could make the necessary adjustments and patrol the paint forcefully enough as to not make it an expressway for Tony Parker to score and endlessly feed Duncan and Tiago Splitter underneath for easy layups. The club wanted to believe that Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler could each step up and make up for Ibaka’s mid-range accuracy.
It hasn’t happened. Through two games, Ibaka’s essential two-way contributions are irreplaceable. His loss to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would now seem equivalent to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade trying to get by last year without Chris Bosh, or Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce playing without Kevin Garnett during their contending days in Boston. Or even Parker and Manu Ginobili running the gauntlet without Duncan, particularly during their stretch of three titles in five years a decade ago.
Recall Kevin Durant’s praise for Ibaka in his MVP speech: “When Russell [Westbrook] was out, you stepped your game up for me, for the team, and nights where you made me look way better than what I am. You cleaned up so many of our mistakes, and we appreciate that, from everybody on the team.”
Ibaka had missed only three games over the last four seasons. His sudden loss threw Oklahoma City into scramble mode to make adjustments on the fly, and to do so with little practice time, and against the most effective and efficient ball-movement team in the league.
It has become the Thunder’s worst nightmare: Sorely limiting and wholly debilitating.
“I don’t know what’s going on in their locker room,” hot-shooting Spurs guard Danny Green said. “All I know is what’s going on in our locker room, and our mindset is they’re dangerous regardless if Serge is there or not. He has an injury, we don’t know how serious it is.”
We’re all about to find out.