The Oklahoma City Thunder announced Friday that power forward Serge Ibaka is expected to miss the remainder of the postseason with a left calf injury, striking down one of the Thunder's top three players during the heat of a playoff push for the second straight season and dealing Scott Brooks' team a potentially fatal blow heading into a Western Conference finals matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.
"We are obviously disappointed for Serge, as he is a tremendous competitor, and we know how badly he wants to be on the court with his teammates," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a team statement. "At this point it is important that our team directs its concentration and energy towards preparation and execution for our upcoming series. As with all teams, our group has confronted different challenges. It is our collective experience that we will call on to ensure that we play to our capabilities."
Clippers point guard Chris Paul curled around a Blake Griffin screen and made his way into the paint, driving to the basket to attempt a floater, with Ibaka sliding over to try (unsuccessfully) to block Paul's errant attempt. The two players' legs got tangled up as they came down to the ground, with both winding up laid out on the floor; the ball dropped down into Paul's hands, and he threw it off the out-of-bounds Ibaka to retain possession for the Clips.
Ibaka got back up and gave it a go on the ensuing possession, but clearly appeared to have some trouble moving around, and asked to be taken out of the game after a Russell Westbrook foul at the 7:24 mark of the third. He did not return, finishing with six points on 3 for 5 shooting, two rebounds and one block in 25 1/2 minutes of playing time in the win.
The 24-year-old Ibaka has been one of the Thunder's most durable players, missing only three games over the past four seasons. He averaged career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game this season, continuing his development into a reliable pressure-release 3-point shooter (a career-best 38.3 percent from deep this season) while increasing his assist rate, taking better care of the basketball and taking on a larger role in the Oklahoma City offense. He's been an integral piece of the Thunder's first two postseason series victories, shooting 60 percent from the floor while doing battle with Marc Gasol in the opening-round win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and making life miserable in the post for Griffin in the six-game win over the Clippers. With him on the court this postseason, the Thunder have scored at an elite rate and outscored their opposition by nearly 7 1/2 points per 100 possessions; when he's sat, they've barely broken even.
His absence comes at an especially inopportune time for the Thunder, as the 6-foot-10 shot-blocker was an instrumental part of disrupting the Spurs' high-scoring precision offense during a four-game regular-season series sweep of San Antonio. While Ibaka's individual numbers against Gregg Popovich's club were strong — 14 points, 11.5 rebounds, four blocks and 1.3 steals in 37 minutes per game — his impact as a defensive deterrent was even stronger:
• With Ibaka on the floor (148 minutes): San Antonio shot 42.3 percent from the field as a team, including marks of 48 percent in the restricted area and 33.3 percent from the 3-point line, while attempting 17.2 free throws per 48 minutes, having 8.1 shots blocked per 48 minutes, and scoring at a rate of 93 points per 100 possessions — which would have ranked dead last in the NBA this season, well below the woeful Philadelphia 76ers.
• With Ibaka on the bench (44 minutes): San Antonio shot 51.4 percent from the field as a team, including marks of 61.9 percent inside the restricted area and 54.2 percent from 3, while attempting 22.8 free throws per-48, having just 2.2 shots blocked per-48, and scoring at a blistering 120.8-per-100 rate that would have blown away the Clippers' league-leading full-season mark.
In sum: When Ibaka was patrolling the paint, the Spurs operated like far and away the worst offense in the league. When he stopped, they started operating like far and away the best offense in the league. On Friday, he stopped patrolling the paint for the rest of this postseason.
The Thunder do have frontcourt options to play with. Kendrick Perkins, as ever, remains at the front of Brooks' big-man rotation, and as we saw on Thursday, rookie Steven Adams and veteran Nick Collison offer a pretty formidable pairing that can replace at least some of Ibaka's value as a screener, rebounder, rim protector, passer and scorer. Brooks could also elect to go smaller, with Durant at power forward, more often against certain Spurs lineups, aiming to force Popovich to follow suit (likely with Kawhi Leonard sliding up to the four) lest the likes of Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw find themselves roasted by Durant off the bounce. But nobody else on the Thunder can do all the things that Ibaka can do, especially on the defensive end, as frequently, as successfully and as consistently as he can. This is bad, bad news for Oklahoma City, at just about the worst possible time.
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