Without Ibaka, the Thunder need to adapt

Down two games to none in their Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder are really struggling without their third-best player, Serge Ibaka, who is out with a leg injury. The Spurs took the first two games of the series in San Antonio, winning by 17 and 35 points respectively on Monday and Wednesday nights.

The Spurs are averaging 117 points per game thus far against Oklahoma City, which certainly has something to do with Ibaka’s absence.

The 6-foot-10 Congolese big man was second only to Anthony Davis this season in blocks per game in the NBA, as he anchored an amazing Thunder defensive unit down low. However, without him, the Thunder’s entire gameplan on both offense and defense has been thrown out the window.

This was apparent right from the start in Game One, in the Spurs’ 122-105 win, as the Spurs dominated points in the paint, outscoring the Thunder by a whooping 66-32 margin in that category.

Tim Duncan had a field day down low, scoring 27 points in his 29 minutes to go with seven rebounds. Nick Collison replaced Ibaka at the power forward position and just could not get the job done.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks knew not having his best defender would hurt his team, but he probably did not think it would be this bad. Oklahoma City’s dismal play continued last night, as abominable second and third quarters led to the Spurs’ second rout in-a-row, this one with a 112-77 score.

Once again, San Antonio won the points in the paint battle, but also won the glass too, outrebounding Oklahoma City 53-38. Granted, it helped that Oklahoma City shot 2 for 20 from three-point range and that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined for just 13-for-40 shooting from the field, but Oklahoma City’s problems run deeper than just some poor shooting.

Not having Ibaka in the middle as a scoring, blocking, and general defending option really hamstrings the Thunder in every aspect of the game.

As a result, Westbrook and Durant have to shoulder more of the offensive load, which leads them to take more ill-advised shots with accounts for their less-than-optimal numbers from last night. Also, without a bona fide interior scorer, San Antonio can afford to contest shooters more, which contributed to Oklahoma City’s abysmal three-point numbers (10 percent in yesterday’s game).

In general, the injury to Ibaka hurts the Thunder in more ways than just post scoring and shot-blocking (and rebounding too). It limits everything they can do and makes Westbrook and Durant’s job so much harder, and against a championship team in the Spurs, that added adversity can lead to a series loss with relative ease. The Spurs have been able to pack the paint defensively and keep the Thunder to the perimeter.

That is, unless Oklahoma City can make the necessary adjustments — with the next two games coming at home — to stem San Antonio’s tide and get itself right back in this series.

In order to do that, taking care of Games 3 and 4 at Chesapeake Energy Arena is a must.

About Josh Burton

I'm a New York native who has been a Nets season ticket holder, in both New Jersey and now Brooklyn, since birth. Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism) '18