The pivotal question for this series should have been “Has San Antonio found a way to deal with the Thunder’s athleticism?”. Unfortunately, Serge Ibaka’s injury has changed that dynamic. Now the main question is whether or not Oklahoma City will have enough depth and defense to fend off the Spurs.
Ibaka’s loss is most noticeable on the defensive end. He was invaluable guarding against Tony Parker drives and Tim Duncan post-ups. Many of his minutes will be redistributed to Nick Collison, a heady defender and all-around team player who will do a decent job of playing position defense against driving guards and staying in front of Duncan, but the drop off in athleticism will be noticeable. Patty Mills will also enjoy the extra freedom around the rim when he comes off the bench. Collison has for years been a plus-minus god, with the Thunder heavily outscoring opponents when he plays, but that has been in limited minutes.
The real disaster potential may be when Collison hits the bench. There’s not a good candidate for the backup power forward spot, with the next man down the bench being the little-used Perry Jones. Instead expect Scott Brooks to go small with Kevin Durant or even Caron Butler sliding over to the 4 when Collison sits. The small-ball look should only be employed when the Spurs’ backups begin to take the floor – either Duncan or Tiago Splitter could wreak havoc against a smaller defender, but Boris Diaw isn’t going to have the same advantage.
If OKC can get away with small units for stretches they should be able to paper over the loss of Ibaka, although the Spurs will be poking and prodding the defense all series looking for hidden advantages to exploit. Don’t be surprised by weird lineup choices or substitutions at odd times from Gregg Popovich as he tries to find mismatches.
The Spurs won’t be afraid to match up with the Thunder in these minutes either. They can easily insert Manu Ginobili or Marco Bellinelli, sliding Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard into the forward spots. The worst-case scenario for the Thunder is that the lineup changes cause confusion that Parker, Mills, and Ginobili can take advantage of, collapsing the defense and resulting in an endless stream of threes for the wings.
On offense losing their starting power forward will have a more subtle impact for the Thunder, but it will be no less of a challenge to replace him. Ibaka has become an elite midrange shooter, and even shot 38% on threes this season as he continues to find ways to operate around the dynamic duo of Durant and Russell Westbrook. Collison is an accomplished midrange shooter in his own right, but he won’t demand the kind of attention Ibaka does. Further, he isn’t a three-point shooter, and when he plays with another big OKC will be strapped to find space.
The Spurs will try to handle Westbrook and Durant the same way everyone does – coax them into playing an isolation style that negates the benefits of having them both on the floor. Leonard is capable of sticking with Durant, though no one on earth can stop him. Green can also step in and provide some valuable minutes on the MVP. The Clippers saw success unexpectedly throwing Chris Paul on him, creating confusion in the Thunder offense enough to slow things down. San Antonio will definitely look at wrinkles like that as short-term methods for cooling Durant down, but he shouldn’t have an easy matchup in the series.
Westbrook may not be as simple to match up against, but Parker can do a reasonable job, and if that isn’t working Green can switch over onto him. Parker can easily hide out on Thabo Sefolosha when he is on the floor, and Scott Brooks may be forced into going to Westbrook-Reggie Jackson lineups earlier than usual as a counter. There is always, of course, the option to insert Derek Fisher as well.
OKC found a lot of Game 7 success with a lineup featuring the usual suspects on the wings with Collison and Steven Adams up front. They’ll hope that wasn’t a flash in the pan, because the duo will likely be playing long stretches together again in this series. Kendrick Perkins will see a lot more defensive responsibility fall on his shoulders too, and he will be stretched to hang with Duncan and Splitter while providing the first unit’s only real rim protection.
The Thunder have been a tough matchup for the Spurs for years, but that was based on an athleticism advantage that is seriously lessened with Ibaka out. They’ll need monster series from both Durant and Westbrook, a contribution from a third player (most likely Jackson) and a respectable showing by the defense just to have a shot. All of those things can happen, but the Spurs are a very deep, very talented team that may quickly overwhelm OKC by making them pay for every mistake and missed opportunity.