Spurs exploit Serge Ibaka's absence in Game 1 rout of Thunder
SAN ANTONIO -- The line between analysis and over-analysis is a thin one. It might have been tempting to go against the grain, to conclude that three straight days of saturated coverage concerning the loss of Serge Ibaka was overkill or to argue that the Western Conference finals would be determined by the healthy players rather than the one with an injured calf.
Such an approach may still prove to be true as Oklahoma City gets its bearings without its ace shot-blocker, but it certainly wasn't the case in San Antonio's 122-105 victory in Game 1 on Monday. The Thunder suffered a 17-point defeat, matching their worst of the postseason, because they didn't have Ibaka and because they haven't devised a functional method for replacing him.
San Antonio drew first blood by repeatedly assaulting the heart of an Ibaka-less defense, and the final damage was startling. The defending Western Conference champs tallied their highest-scoring night of the 2014 playoffs, dumping in 66 points in the paint, scoring 30+ points in three different quarters and forcing Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks to wave the white flag late in the fourth quarter.
"We were just taking what they gave us," an almost bored Tim Duncan said, after posting 27 points (on 11-for-19 shooting) and seven rebounds.
What the Thunder were giving out -- unlike during the regular season -- were free layups.
During the regular season, the Spurs shot 65 percent in the restricted area, the third-highest percentage in the league behind the Heat and Clippers. Even without a LeBron James or a Lob City connection, San Antonio regularly generated high looks around the basket thanks to Tony Parker's penetration, excellent ball movement and the presence of three bigs in Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw.
That story changed dramatically in San Antonio's four regular season losses to Oklahoma City. During those games, the Spurs shot just 50 percent in the restricted area; by comparison, the worst team in the league shot 56 percent for the season. Call it the Ibaka Effect, or spread the credit out among all of the Thunder's bigs. Either way, San Antonio transformed from an elite team into a deficient team around the hoop when they faced Oklahoma City this season.
Without Ibaka, who remained in Oklahoma City on Monday, the story changed: The Spurs shot an astonishing 31-for-43 (72.1 percent) in the basket area prior to garbage time. Duncan got rolling early, finishing with his third-highest point total of the season. Splitter and Diaw both found easy baskets from close range. Parker and Kawhi Leonard both attacked fearlessly off the dribble, finishing spectacular and easy looks alike. Even Manu Ginobili, who struggled throughout the Western Conference semifinals series with the Blazers, came alive with four second-half baskets in the paint to finish with 18 points, his best effort in two weeks.
This was a total barrage from all angles at Oklahoma City's hoop and the Thunder offered little in the way of resistance. The only thing bleeding more than Nick Collison, who was cut on multiple occasions, was the Thunder's interior defense.
"They were able to get anything they wanted," Brooks admitted afterwards.
Ibaka's absence forced Collison into a starting role, which produced mixed results. The Spurs raced out to an 18-7 lead in the first quarter, but the Thunder countered with a 17-8 run to start the second half.
The tipping points came when Oklahoma City went to smaller lineups. When rookie center Steven Adams was the Thunder's only big man, the Spurs expertly put him into pick-and-roll situations, drawing him away from the basket and opening up scoring opportunities behind him. The Thunder's smaller weakside defenders simply weren't able to provide adequate cover.
Oklahoma City also went even smaller than that, going to an unconventional all-perimeter look that included Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Kevin Durant -- in the fourth quarter in hopes of spreading out San Antonio. Instead, the Spurs scored 10 straight points in the paint before eventually blowing the game wide open. Stepping back from the play-by-play, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which Durant and Butler will be able to hold down the paint against the Spurs.
"They're going to have to do some different things, probably, play different people," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked about the Thunder's lineups without Ibaka.
It wasn't totally clear whether Popovich was referring to Oklahoma City's dilemma entering Game 1 or the need for adjustments in advance of Game 2. Regardless, Brooks must take a different tact on Wednesday if he expects to see different results.
Ibaka, who placed fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, was invaluable in spreading the court on offense. Collison began the game badly missing multiple jumpers that the Spurs dared him to shoot. It's possible Brooks was hesitant to ride lineups that included two big men because the court would shrink offensively, making life more difficult for Durant and Westbrook.
One possible solution to that problem: dump Thabo Sefolosha, who was scoreless in 15 minutes, in favor of either Caron Butler or Reggie Jackson, so that the Thunder can keep enough offensive threats on the court to offset the scoring limitations of their bigs. Sefolosha's usefulness in this series is questionable with Westbrook guarding Parker, and Oklahoma City can't afford any deadweight on offense.
Even though he finished scoreless in 15 minutes, there seems little doubt that Collison must get more minutes to help stabilize the Thunder's back line. Continuing to strand Adams as the only big man seems like a recipe for continued exploitation; Brooks will either need to play Collison and Adams together or mix up the combinations such that Collison is the sole big man when Oklahoma City goes smaller.
The run-up to Game 1 produced some skepticism from the Spurs players, who openly voiced doubts that Ibaka would actually miss the series. Their approach was understandable, as such a fortuitous, potentially series-changing development probably felt too good to be true.
"Contrary to what San Antonio was thinking, [Ibaka] is not coming back," Brooks said afterwards. "He's not coming through those doors."
Once on the court, however, San Antonio dispensed with anything approaching caution as they attacked the many holes created by Ibaka's absence. The Thunder got their first taste of the Spurs' offense, a machine that put away the Mavericks and tore apart the Blazers. It's certainly too early to bury a resilient Oklahoma City team, but they will be in some serious trouble if Ibaka is still the talk of the town 48 hours from now.