NBA playoffs preview: Can Ibaka-less Thunder sink Spurs?
Season series: Thunder won 4-0
Efficiency rankings: San Antonio (6th offense, 4th defense); Oklahoma City (7th offense, 5th defense)
Playoff results: Spurs beat Mavericks 4-3 and Trail Blazers 4-1; Thunder beat Grizzlies 4-3 and Clippers 4-2
"May Madness" this ain't. For three straight seasons, the Spurs and Thunder have finished as the Western Conference's top two seeds and, if not for a fluky Russell Westbrook knee injury last year, we could easily be talking about this series as the third chapter of an epic Western Conference finals trilogy.
But an unsurprising, chalky matchup was turned on its head late Friday, when Oklahoma City announced that power forward Serge Ibaka will miss the playoffs with a calf injury. Rather than two familiar foes sizing up each other in another epic showdown, Spurs/Thunder will open on Monday with all sorts of unanticipated questions. How does Oklahoma City replace Ibaka, who logged more minutes than any other Thunder player except MVP Kevin Durant this season? Will coach Scott Brooks elect to use a traditional frontline with two big men and Durant, or will he go smaller by shifting Durant into the power forward role, or will he mix and match both approaches? How deeply will Ibaka's absence impact the order and rhythm of Oklahoma City's rotation, and will the Thunder's reshaped reserve corps be able to keep up with the Spurs' exceptional bench?
Prior to Ibaka's injury, the Spurs were set to enter the series as slight favorites, even if the Thunder swept the season series 4-0 by an average of 9.2 points per game. San Antonio outperformed the Thunder by a hair on both sides of the ball during the regular season. That trend has continued that during the playoffs, where San Antonio has ranked No. 2 on offense and No. 3 while Oklahoma City has ranked No. 6 on offense and No. 5 on defense. The Spurs also hold the all-important home-court advantage, and they have gone 6-1 at home during the playoffs -- winning their last four home playoff games by an average of 21.5 points (!) -- after running off a 32-9 record at the AT&T Center during the regular season.
The West finals comes down to this: Will the scary-good Spurs machine gobble up a suddenly weakened foe, or will the Thunder find a way to weather the Ibaka injury as they previously overcame Tony Allen's superb defense, the "Mr. Unreliable" flap, a career three-point shooting night from Chris Paul, a major Game 4 collapse against the Clippers, and a huge fourth-quarter hole in Game 5? Something has to give between the unflappable Spurs and the indomitable Thunder.
The Case For The Spurs
If I had a dollar for every time the Blazers referred to the Spurs as "champions" or "championship-caliber" over the last two weeks, I'd probably start kicking the tires on buying the Clippers from Donald Sterling. San Antonio's total domination left Portland shocked and awed, and it amounted to the best extended stretch of two-way basketball that any team has played so far during the playoffs. They made the sport look easy, operating two and three steps ahead of the Blazers and doing well to build early leads before maintaining them with a steady hand. Assuming Tony Parker is healthy, after suffering a mild hamstring injury in Game 5, there's every reason to believe the Spurs' attack will pick up right where it left off.
Offensively, San Antonio will look to get Parker going to the basket without Ibaka patrolling the paint. Ibaka was a central piece in the Thunder's defensive success against the Spurs, posting an excellent defensive rating of 93 in 148 minutes against San Antonio this year, and there's just no replicating his strength as a one-on-one defender, his game-changing help defense, his defensive rebounding, and the lineup versatility he offers by being able to play either the four or five effectively. Even without Ibaka, though, Oklahoma City will offer a stiffer test than Portland's soft pick-and-roll coverage; the big concern will be whether they can keep their big men out of foul trouble as Parker and Ginobili make foray after foray into the paint.
Overcoming the Durant/Russell Westbrook pairing, which is averaging 58 points per game during the postseason, will keep the Spurs' hands full. Defensively, the Spurs have succeeded in limiting Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard during their first two series, but both Durant and Westbrook are different beasts. Look for small forward Kawhi Leonard, who was a two-way standout against the Blazers, to do his best to frustrate Durant, who suffered through some rough shooting patches against both the Grizzlies and Clippers. San Antonio's big men will be put to the test challenging Westbrook's paint attempts, as their guards will likely struggle to contain him at the point of attack. Removing Ibaka, who can finish at the rim, on second-chance opportunities and by shooting from mid-range, will make life on offense more difficult for both Durant and Westbrook, and it should allow the Spurs' big men to pack the paint. Finally, San Antonio has taken care of the ball well during the postseason -- ranking fourth among playoff teams in turnover percentage. Maintaining that ball control will be key to slowing the Thunder's All-Stars, particularly Westbrook.
The Case For The Thunder
Oklahoma City has ridden Durant and Westbrook this far -- surviving stiff tests against both Memphis and L.A. -- and the responsibilities and burdens felt by the two Thunder stars will only increase with Ibaka sidelined. A worthy winner of his first MVP award this season, Durant has delivered multiple signature performances during these playoffs (33 points in a closeout win against the Grizzlies and 39 points in a closeout win against the Clippers, among others), but also has had a few duds. There is simply no margin for error against the Spurs, whose own offensive firepower will make it impossible for Oklahoma City to win if Durant shoots 5-for-21 (as he did in a win over Memphis) or 6-for-22 (as he did in a win over L.A.). If Durant is hitting, he's as unstoppable a force as anyone since Michael Jordan, and he's capable of carrying the Thunder all the way to the promised land.
Pretty much the same thing goes for Westbrook, who has delivered time and again in crucial situations for the Thunder during the postseason. As talented and multi-dimensional as the Spurs' backcourt is, they don't have a great individual answer for Westbrook, and it will be a genuine surprise if he doesn't leave a major mark on this series. That said, poor shooting nights, high turnovers nights or both from Westbrook will spell big trouble against the Spurs, who have feasted on extra possessions and transition three-pointers.
From there, Oklahoma City's path to victory will require major contributions from their key role players, who have been hit-or-miss during the playoffs. Reserve guard Reggie Jackson, the star of Oklahoma City's Game 4 win over Memphis, will need to step up as a consistent third scorer, while rookie center Steven Adams is suddenly thrust into a key spot on defense. The Thunder also must get sustained perimeter contributions from Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Thabo Sefolosha; that trio doesn't need to explode, but they can't toss up doughnuts if their counterparts -- Leonard, Danny Green, and Patty Mills -- are going off.
The Ibaka injury is costly, but it should remove some of the pressure for the Thunder, allowing them to adopt an underdog mentality. It should also challenge Brooks to get more creative, and that could be a really good thing for a roster that has had some young talent hiding on its bench in recent months. If the Thunder advance to the Finals, it will be because Durant and Westbrook carried them there, because Jackson stepped up, and because Brooks was able to spin a little chaos to his team's advantage.
Manu Ginobili. Much like the Spurs' series with the Blazers, their depth could prove to be the deciding factor here. So far during the postseason, San Antonio's reserves have averaged a league-best 39.5 points per game, six more points than any other team that advanced to the conference semifinals. Oklahoma City's bench, by contrast, has averaged 24.8 points per game, and their reserve corps is heading for a shakeup without Ibaka.
Ginobili, one of the top runners-up for the Sixth Man award this year, is averaging 13.9 points per game while shooting just 38.8 percent and committing nearly three turnovers per game during the postseason. If he can find a way to get things going, Brooks may find his Ibaka-less defense unable to cover all of San Antonio's weapons. If Ginobili continues to struggle, however, the mountain that Durant and Westbrook need to climb gets that much shorter.
Spurs in six. The Ibaka injury flips the script. If he was healthy, the pick would be Thunder in seven, based on the Durant/Westbrook heroics that have often seemed driven by fate in recent weeks. Going back to the preseason, I predicted Oklahoma City to emerge from the Western Conference, and their regular season results and key individual matchup advantages had placed them in position to enter this series with confidence.
The loss of Ibaka, though, will likely expose cracks on both ends. Inconsistent and stagnant offense were problem areas against Memphis; extended bouts with either will be death against the Spurs. Strong interior defense was a particular strength against San Antonio this season; that calculation totally changes without Ibaka, putting Parker in a position to exert his will. The Thunder's 4-3 home record during the playoffs has been out of character and stands as one final red flag against a healthy, focused, determined opponent that has been firing on all cylinders for weeks.