By RICK SOLEM
Serge Ibaka is out. The Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in the middle of the playoffs, shorthanded. Again. But it doesn’t necessarily spell doom this time.
Right away you may think that, going against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs – the best ‘team’ in the NBA. But this isn’t the “pound it in the post” Spurs of the Duncan-David Robinson era.
This is the “ball movement, backdoor-cutting, in-and-out” Spurs, and Duncan is just a side show.
Yes, he’s good in the post, but he’s not dropping 50 points on Oklahoma because they don’t have Ibaka.
Last year, the Thunder were finished when Russell Westbrook blew out his knee. You can’t lose a Top 7 player in the NBA and win it all. Especially a guy that touches the ball every position – and sometimes for an entire possession.
Ibaka is a solid player, the best backside shot blocker in the league and the perfect compliment to drive-and-kicks from Westbrook. But the worst part of losing him is that coach Scott Brooks will be compelled to put Kendrick Perkins on the floor more often.
If Brooks doesn’t come to the realization quickly that Perkins - however you want to describe his presence on the floor, because it’s pretty indescribable - will be OKC’s downfall.
It’s bad enough Brooks gets away with the job he does with the Thunder, because it’s basically roll the ball out and let whoever grabs it first – Westbrook or Durant – dribble around a for 7 to 23.9 seconds, then chuck it up.
The Thunder don't need to replace Ibaka with his counterpart, they need to throw out the traditional lineup in an extreme way. They were toying with playing Durant at power forward often already this playoffs.
Now, they need to do something more radical - put Durant on Duncan. There’s only 10 pounds difference between them.
Run Caron Butler at power forward for spells in between Nick Collison and Steven Adams, and tell Butler his only job is to box out Splitter/Diaw.
Splitter and Diaw aren’t beating anyone down low. If they don’t get offensive rebounds, they’re worthless. And what are they going to do on defense?
The Spurs may just have to take them off the floor - which would make sense.
Durant at center, Butler at power forward and Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha and Westbrook in the backcourt, spacing the floor.
The only problem with going this small is depth, and that’s where the Spurs will get you in the end.
San Antonio is the deepest team in the NBA, with the best coach, who toyed with his lineups all season to find the perfect combinations to throw out there for the playoffs.
Going super small may work for the Thunder for awhile, but Butler is old, and the only backups to the three-guard lineup are Derek Fisher – who is pushing 82 – and Jeremy Lamb.
But those guys should all be able to guard someone on the Spurs. Marco Belinelli and Danny Green aren’t getting by anyone. Westbrook can stay in front of Tony Parker.
The Thunder’s biggest problem won’t be guarding the bigs because they’re missing Ibaka, it will be the same story as it was if he were healthy – keeping a man on Manu Ginobli and Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard may be the NBA’s best-kept secret, and that’s just how Spurs coach Greg Popovich likes it.
His defense on Durant may be the key to this series. Or, again, Westbrook’s ability to keep the ball from Durant may be that same key.
The Spurs are the anti-Thunder. Where OKC runs the “your-turn, my-turn” offense with Durant and Westbrook, the ball never stops moving for San Antonio.
The list is long on who can beat you for the Spurs, and short on the Thunder. But when that list is the league MVP and nearly unstoppable scorer in the NBA, and the most explosive point guard in the league, you always have a chance.
The Ibaka injury stinks. If for no other reason, the best team now may not come out of the West and the Heat will get a freebie if they make it to the Finals.
And, what I’m getting at with that comment is, it will be the up-and-chuck, one-and-gun Thunder – against my better judgment as a basketball purest, picking against the team that plays basketball at its purest – not the Spurs who prevail.
Thunder in seven.