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When the Oklahoma City Thunder announced Friday that Serge Ibaka was expected to miss the rest of the postseason with a Grade 1 strain of his left calf, many of us instantly began focusing on what Thunder head coach Scott Brooks might do to make up for the loss of his starting power forward in Oklahoma City's impending Western Conference finals matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, which begins Monday night with Game 1 in Texas. Several Spurs, however, focused on something else — the words "expected to."
The Spurs aren't calling the Thunder liars or bluffers, per se — they're just not totally buying that the 24-year-old shot-blocker and interior defensive menace won't make a return at some point before all's said and done. Like, for example, Monday night. From Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:
“I don’t really believe it,” said point guard Tony Parker, who has been cleared to play in the opener after straining his left hamstring in the second round. “I’ll believe when I see tomorrow he is not on the court. It’s hard to believe. We’ll see tomorrow.”
Said Kawhi Leonard, “We’re still not sure if he’s going to play or not, but it doesn’t matter. The Thunder are still a very good team.” [...]
The Spurs have no doubt considered every possible contingency in how the Thunder might adjust without him — including, it seems, the extreme unlikelihood that he might actually play. (Again, appropriate fear.) Not that Popovich would ever admit to such planning to the media.
“It’s really a waste of time,” Popovich said. “When the game starts, everybody will know what’s going on and everybody will adjust both ways.”
Given the success that Oklahoma City has had against San Antonio over the past three seasons (an 11-6 mark, including wins in the final four games of their 2012 Western Conference finals matchup and a four-game regular-season sweep this year) and Thunder general manager Sam Presti's statement leaving the door to an Ibaka return ever so slightly ajar, you can understand why the three-time Coach of the Year would emphasize being ready for whichever lineups San Antonio might face. What scares him most is his team getting complacent or comfortable, which is why he's drilling that "appropriate fear" into his players' heads before the series kicks off on Monday. From Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports:
"We know them very well," Parker said. "I think ball movement, execution [must improve]. We need to execute a lot better, because against them you can't go half-speed. You have to go full speed, and we have to be perfect because they are younger than us and they're more athletic than us. So everything has to be more perfect." [...]
"We know the head of the snake is [Kevin] Durant and [Russell] Westbrook ... so we can keep the focus a little bit more [on them], worry a little less about [what] Ibaka will do," Spurs forward Boris Diaw said. "But they still have a very, very good team."
Added Parker, "[Rookie center] Steve Adams has been stepping up, [veteran forward] Nick Collison is a great player. They can go small. They're going to do different stuff, so we're going to have to adapt. ... We're going to try to contain everything. Like you say, Westbrook and Durant are going to score points. They're great players, and Durant is the MVP, so you're not going to stop them."
San Antonio figures to rely on rising star small forward Kawhi Leonard to, if not stop, then at least make life more difficult for Thunder leader and reigning Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant. It also wouldn't be totally shocking if Popovich also gave Tiago Splitter — fresh off strong defensive work on high-scoring, jump-shooting big men Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge in the first two rounds of the playoffs — the assignment for short stretches, if only to change up the looks the Spurs give Durant to prevent him from getting comfortable.
Slowing down Westbrook — who is on pace to become just the third player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game during a single postseason, joining Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy — was going to be a problem for the San Antonio backcourt even with Parker entering the series with a dinged-up wheel. And even if Ibaka is indeed out of the mix, the Spurs will have to reckon with a deep, talented Thunder roster built by one of their own, former San Antonio assistant general manager and "resident genius" Presti. As Popovich is so fond of telling his team during timeouts, it's not going to be easy; it never is at this level.
Still, not only is Presti calling it "unlikely that [Ibaka] would return if we were fortunate to make it past this next series," but the power forward didn't travel to San Antonio for Game 1, still needing a medical scooter to travel and staying behind in Oklahoma to continue to receive treatment. It seems like the fear of an Ibaka return — while part of the overall "appropriate fear" Pop emphasizes — isn't warranted ... at least, not yet.
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