By John Schmeelk
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Even with Serge Ibaka on the floor, the Thunder would be hard-pressed to beat a well-oiled machine like the San Antonio Spurs.
Gregg Popovich’s group is deeper, with more balanced scoring and better coaching. Oklahoma City is too reliant on the offense of their two stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Losing their third-best player, Serge Ibaka, is simply too much to overcome.
Known as a dominant rim protector and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, most analysts pointed to the hole that Ibaka’s absence would leave on the Thunder’s defense. During the regular season, the Thunder’s defense was the same whether Ibaka was on the floor or not (101.0 defensive rating). The impact on the offensive side of the ball was small, with the team scoring one more point per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the floor as opposed to when he was on the bench.
The playoffs show a much larger effect. Through 14 postseason games, the Thunder have allowed slightly over two points more per 100 possessions when Ibaka is on the bench. Offensively, Ibaka’s absence is debilitating. He has the highest offensive rating of any Thunder player (111.0) in the postseason, and when he hits the pine the Thunder score a dreadful 102.7 points per 100 possessions. Only Westbrook or Durant not being on the floor has a larger effect.
It’s Ibaka’s offense that the Thunder cannot afford to lose, not his defense.
With so much of the Oklahoma City’s offense dependent on Westbrook and Durant winning their one-on-one matchups, Ibaka’s presence is paramount in helping take the pressure of those two guys. He is a good finisher at the rim if his man leaves to double team either star, making him a potential offensive rebounder or the recipient of a Westbrook or Durant pass near the basket. Ibaka has also developed an excellent mid-range jumper that stretches out near the three-point line. It’s a weapon in high pick-and-rolls that make it difficult to trap the ball handler. Neither Steven Adams, Nick Collison nor Kendrick Perkins can provide what Ibaka does offensively.
The Spurs are a dynamic offensive team. They’re going to score. And the Thunder, even with Durant and Westbrook, can’t get it done without someone in the front court giving them some help. Popovich is too good of a coach to allow two men to beat his team. Eventually someone else is going to have to step up and score, and right now it seems like the other Thunder players aren’t willing or able to do it. Offensively, San Antonio lacks size and explosiveness around the basket, which makes Ibaka’s shot blocking even more valuable. His absence makes all those back-cuts San Antonio runs even easier to convert into points.
The Thunder have an uphill battle, and one that will be over in five games unless they can find someone to score 15 points on a consistent basis against the Spurs.
They say Serge Ibaka is out for the remainder of the series. If he is, they’ll be heading back to Oklahoma for summer vacation in no time.
– A potentially short series against the Spurs will help the Knicks, who will get to interview Derek Fisher a lot sooner. He now seems to be Jackson’s prohibitive choice to coach the Knicks. It fits the same type of formula he was trying to put together with Steve Kerr.
– I can’t figure out the Heat-Pacers series with the up-and-down nature of Indiana the last month. Does anyone really know which team is going to show up on a nightly basis? I don’t. Eventually it will catch up with them and the Heat should win in six games. If the Pacers manage to get the series back to Indiana for a Game 7, I would consider it 50-50.
Follow John on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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