Just what the Oklahoma City Thunder needed: another injury to one of their best players.
After starting the first 64 games of the 2014-15 season, power forward Serge Ibaka has missed the last two — Friday night's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sunday's matinee victory over the Chicago Bulls — with what the team had termed a sore right knee. After a few days of monitoring the situation, the Thunder have determined that Ibaka needs to go under the knife to address the problem, according to ESPN.com's Royce Young:
[Ibaka] will see a specialist for further evaluation, with the expectation for him to have a clean-out procedure in order to be ready for the postseason.
The Thunder have not confirmed that Ibaka will undergo the surgery, saying in a statement Monday that they have sent him to a specialist.
"As we continue to monitor and evaluate the soreness in Serge's knee, in consultation with his representation, we decided the next best step is to have him travel to New York to see a specialist," a team spokesman said. "We will provide an update as appropriate."
Young reports that it's not yet clear how long Ibaka will be sidelined following the "clean-out," which is obviously a pretty big problem, as the Thunder can ill afford to spend too much time down the stretch without their best interior defender as they also continue to work without injured MVP Kevin Durant and attempt to fend off Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Thunder enter Monday's action in eighth place at 37-29, one full game up on the 36-30 Pelicans. Oklahoma City visits the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night. The Pelicans next play on Tuesday, when they'll host the Milwaukee Bucks. New Orleans holds the tiebreaker over Oklahoma City by virtue of a 3-1 win in the head-to-head season series between the two clubs.
Ibaka's contributions to the Thunder's success often (and somewhat understandably) receive less attention than those made by generational talents Durant and Russell Westbrook, but he's unquestionably Oklahoma City's third-best player and the linchpin of the Thunder's big-man rotation — especially, as we learned during last spring's Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, on the defensive end.
Ibaka ranks second in the league this season in blocks per game at 2.4, and third in block percentage, a measurement of how large a share of opponents' attempts you reject during your time on the court, by turning 5.8 percent of the opposition's tries. His impact also extends beyond the shots he swats. Among NBA big men who average at least 20 minutes per game and defend a handful of shots at the rim per contest, only 7-foot-2 emerging star Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz holds opponents to a lower at-the-rim shooting percentage than Ibaka, according to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data.
He's making a difference even when he doesn't directly defend the shot, too; Thunder opponents have shot 53.8 percent inside the restricted area with Serge on the court, compared to 61.5 percent when he sits, according to NBA.com's stat tool. Plus, Ibaka's been head coach Scott Brooks' guard-dog of choice when it comes to deploying trade-deadline acquisition Enes Kanter.
The Turkish big man might be the most gifted offensive center Oklahoma City's ever had, but he also built up a reputation as something of a defensive sieve during his years with the Utah Jazz. He's played 324 total minutes in a Thunder uniform, and 238 of them have come alongside Ibaka, whose ability to guard both fours and fives, protect the rim and stymie pick-and-rolls has helped to mask Kanter's shortcomings and allow him to focus more on the offensive end and his developing pick-and-roll chemistry with Westbrook. (Ibaka's often-derided development into one of the league's more capable floor-spacing power forwards has helped there, too, opening up room for Kanter to go to work in the post and on the offensive glass.)
The handcuffing's even clearer when you consider that just under 70 of Kanter's sans-Ibaka minutes have come during the past two games, when Serge was unavailable due to injury. That means that, when he had the option to do so, Brooks had paired Ibaka with Kanter for a shade over 93 percent of Kanter's minutes since he came to town.
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Now, to be fair, that move hasn't exactly paid off in a major way — lineups featuring the Ibaka-Kanter combo have allowed opponents to score at a rate (109.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) that would rank dead-last in the league in defensive efficiency over the course of the full season — but if offers an indication of where Brooks' comfort level might lie with allowing Kanter to work defensively with anyone other than a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber player alongside him.
Brooks does have a few sound options from which to choose in developing a post-Ibaka frontcourt rotation — he went with rookie Mitch McGary against Minnesota and sophomore Steven Adams against Chicago, and he's also got veteran Nick Collison as a more experienced choice. But none of those players provide near the level of offensive floor-spacing and defensive mistake-correction that Ibaka can, and has, in big minutes alongside the Thunder's new post-scoring prize. It's likely that opponents will step up the frequency of their attacks on Kanter in the pick-and-roll game knowing that Ibaka won't be lurking along the baseline as the last line of help defense at the rim; how Brooks responds to maintain Oklahoma City's defensive integrity without Ibaka should prove to be fascinating.
And then, of course, there's Westbrook, whose unleashed fury has been the NBA's most scintillating story over the past month, and to whom responsibility for keeping the Thunder afloat has fallen in Durant's absence. Westbrook has responded to being asked to carry Oklahoma City without Durant by averaging right around 33 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and two steals per game since the All-Star break. Now — for the time being, at least — he'll be asked to keep the Thunder atop the Pelicans in the standings without both of his All-Star-caliber running buddies, both the one who changes the complexion of every defense he faces and the one who can stifle an opponent's attack through the sheer fear of challenging him at the basket.
Logic dictates that, at some point, the obstacles just stack up too high; then again, logic doesn't seem to have a whole hell of a lot to do with what Russell Westbrook can and does accomplish on a night-to-night basis. It's awful difficult to imagine Westbrook shouldering an even greater load for Oklahoma City than he has over the past month, but at this point, it looks like he'll have to if the Thunder are to remain in playoff position.
What can the player responsible for arguably the most brilliant individual stretch of play we've seen in years possibly have in store for an encore? I don't know about you, but while I wish Serge and KD speedy recoveries, I can't wait to find out.
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