Will Serge Ibaka injury doom OKC’s championship course?
The Oklahoma City Thunder managed to outlast in their second round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers in what was a fascinating and very close series. They will now face the red hot San Antonio Spurs for yet another time in the Western Conference Finals. Although OKC swept the regular season series they will now enter this matchup as the slight underdogs, especially after the season – ending injury of Serge Ibaka. The Thunder heavily rely on their two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the offensive end but Ibaka is the third wheel of this well – oiled machine.
After the news about the severity of the calf injury Ibaka suffered in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semis against the Clips, some people said that his absence could be the reason why the Thunder will not make it to the NBA Finals this year. As a matter of fact, Ibaka’s contribution to this team has been significant all season long. Before suffering this severe injury he was recording his best season as a professional. He averaged a little more than 15 points per game and he was the Thunder’s third leading scorer behind Westbrook and Durant and also the third leading rebounder. He also led the entire league in total block shots for yet another season.
Now, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have to find ways to fill the void Ibaka will leave behind. We should expect an increase in the minutes of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams. However, none of those three players can be as effective as Ibaka was on the offensive end. As a matter of fact, Ibaka’s jump shot was drastically improved this season. Apart from his defensive skills and his ability to block and alter shots, he was a big contributor on the offensive end for OKC. Ibaka was the one to emerge as the third star behind Westbrook and Durant this year and the one to provide solutions on offense when the two megastars couldn’t find an easy shot. On top of that, since the loss of Kevin Martin, there hasn’t been another member of this Oklahoma City Thunder team, apart from Ibaka, who could play this third – wheel role. Whilst Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and even the mid – season acquisition Caron Butler had their moments, none of them plays at the level and has enough confidence to step up and take charge during this win or go home Western Finals series. So, Ibaka’s injury will definitely be a shock for the Thunder.
The biggest question for the Thunder at the moment, on the defensive end, is who will guard Tim Duncan. The 38 – year old future Hall of Famer is playing in an outstanding way and he is continuing to provide lessons to the entire NBA world about how the pick and roll should be played. After spending years playing alongside Tony Parker and under coach Gregg Popovich, the two megastars are arguably the best duo when it comes to pick and roll offense in the league. With the athletic and defensive monster Serge Ibaka gone, it will be a big challenge for OKC to find ways to stop the Spurs’ pick and rolls in this matchup.
The San Antonio Spurs do hold the home court advantage and they are a tough defensive – minded team. Their main focus in this series against OKC will be to try and limit Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s offense. Now, with Ibaka out, the Spurs will have one less offensive threat to take care of and they can adjust their defense more on the two surging stars.
The truth is that the Oklahoma City Thunder was arguably the only team capable of beating the San Antonio Spurs this season. It took a while for the San Antonio Spurs to get things going into the 2013 – 2014 season but once they did they became unstoppable. The Spurs set a new franchise record for most victories in a row and their level of play just couldn’t be matched by any team in the Western Conference, maybe not even in the entire NBA. OKC was considered to be the only team that could truly threaten and even beat the Spurs in a potential seven game Western Finals series. Mainly thanks to Kevin Durant’s incredible outputs and also thanks to the fact that Russell Westbrook finally got over his extended injury and came back strong. However, now things will be extremely tough for the Thunder.
Of course, OKC’s chances to make it to the NBA Finals have not diminished. The Thunder might still have enough to roll past the Spurs but they will need some monster performances from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in most, if not in every single game they will play against San Antonio. Especially on offense, the two of them will have to do pretty much everything. KD will have to hit his shots at the amazing rates he did in the biggest chunk of the regular season and he might even be requested to defend the power forward spot. This means he will have to match against some of the Spurs’ big men, like Borris Diaw or even Tim Duncan for some stretches of the game. Russell Westbrook will have to be as aggressive as has ever been in this season. He will have to showcase his full skillset, on both ends of the floor. His success or failure in his matchup against Tony Parker will be a key in this series. The Thunder will have almost zero chances to make it to the NBA Finals if Tony Parker is allowed to fully unfold his game and disrupt the Thunder’s defense.
After seeing their championship ambitions getting doomed last season due to Westbrook’s season ending injury, the Thunder have a high and sloppy mountain to climb this year after Ibaka’s injury. Will they manage to turn things around, play against all odds and get the ticket to the NBA Finals?