After a dispiriting trip to San Antonio, where they dropped the first two games of the Western Conference Finals fairly meekly, the Oklahoma City Thunder received an unexpected burst of good news on Friday when Serge Ibaka was upgraded from “out” to “day-to-day.” Ibaka had originally been slated to miss the rest of the playoffs after suffering a severe calf injury during OKC’s Game 6 closeout of the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round.
Without Ibaka, Scott Brooks has been searching in vain for a lineup that can compete on both ends of the floor. In fact, of the 21 separate five-man units the Thunder have used through the first two games, only two have outscored the Spurs while they were on the floor. The problems faced by these lineups illustrate the hole left by Ibaka. Brooks has been forced to make an impossible choice. Does he go big, with two of Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins on the floor? In 27 minutes across the first two games, those lineups are nearly losing by nearly 41 pts/100 possessions, with the Thunder shooting 28.8% from the floor during that time. Do the Thunder go small, with Kevin Durant or perhaps Perry Jones as the nominal 5? The lack of rim protection has crippled the Thunder defense, with San Antonio shooting 78% on shots from 5 feet or closer to the basket.
This inherent offense-or-defense tradeoff is usually where Ibaka would normally fill in. He’s the only of OKC’s regular big men who is a consistent offensive threat. Though Adams and especially Collison can score efficiently, their usage rates indicate players with little offensive skill aside from catching and finishing at the rim, either via pass or on the offensive glass.
While Ibaka’s 19.6% usage is slightly below league average, he is still someone who must be guarded, especially from midrange:
Given the offensive limitations of many of the Thunder’s role players, both Ibaka’s scoring and the space his shooting creates eases the burden on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook considerably as a viable third option on the floor.
Meanwhile, it’s not hard to see that Ibaka’s loss is felt even more keenly on the other end of the floor. Not only are the Spurs scoring nearly at will inside, led by Danny Green they are shooting 45% from three-point range en route to a blistering 123.4 Offensive Rating.
Ibaka’s possible return would primarily help stifle the Spurs attack at the rim. Serge was one of the very best in the league at defending the rim this season, especially among power forwards. This visualization from Austin Clemens helps demonstrate Ibaka’s effectiveness, with the blue squares illustrating areas where opponent’s shot worse with Serge on the floor:
Adams, Collison and Perkins, weren’t terrible rim defenders over the course of the season, with Adams and Collison appearing slightly above average and Perkins slightly below when measured by the NBA.s SportVU tracking system, but Ibaka is a significant upgrade.
Ibaka’s presence could easily improve OKC’s ability to defend on the perimeter as well. In addition to superior lateral quickness to the other bigs, which might allow him to contain penetration more ably the Adams does here:
In addition his shot blocking and overall presence in the paint might allow players such as Durant to “stay home” on shooters rather than helping on these drives:
Even if he’s not 100 percent, Ibaka could well provide just enough of a boost on both ends of the court for the Thunder. He won’t win any games by himself, but if he helps keep them close, Durant or Westbrook taking over from there is Oklahoma City’s best shot and making this Western Conference Finals series competitive again.
Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.