SAN ANTONIO — Kevin Durant stood at the podium two weeks ago, delivering the speech of the century, and said so many things it’s hard to remember them all. But among the nuggets was this. Thanks, he said to Serge Ibaka, for “cleaning up all our mistakes.”
Now you know what Durant meant.
Ibaka is missing from the Western Conference Finals, courtesy of a strained calf injury, and the Thunder discovered what life is like without their shot-blocking ace. Rough. Very rough.
The Spurs routed the Thunder 122-105 in Game 1 at AT&T Center, attacking the basket with medieval fury. The moat was dry. The walls were down. The gates were a welcome mat.
The Spurs scored 66 points in the paint, and few of them were runners or floaters or 10-footers. Most of those points came on tap-ins. San Antonio made 33 of 49 shots from the lane. Nine were on virtually uncontested layups. Three were dunks. Twelve more were contested shots at the rim. Twenty-four baskets from no longer farther away than two feet.
“That’s what we were focusing on, knowing that Serge Ibaka was not in there,” said San Antone’s Boris Diaw.
Spur conductor Tony Parker had 12 assists and said: “Obviously, it makes a huge difference when Ibaka is not there. He’s one of the best defenders in the NBA.”
Ibaka is a shot-blocking demon. Just as valuable as the shots he blocks are the shots he alters. Just as valuable as the shots he alters are the shots not taken, thanks to concern that the Thunder dragon will swoop in and swat away the ball.
Tim Duncan turned back the clock. The Spurs’ 38-year-old rock of ages scored 21 first-half points, most on shots around the rim. Duncan has come to know that even if he maneuvers past Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison, Ibaka is waiting on him. But Duncan knew Monday night that Ibaka was not in the South of Texas.
At times, you wondered if the Thunder knew it.
“Missing Serge is pretty tough,” said OKC’s Reggie Jackson. “Your body tells you a few things. Just send them Serge’s way. So I think we have to get out of that mindset.”
The Thunder brass never really said so publicly, but it knew how valuable was Ibaka. He played mind games with every opponent. Every NBA foe knew that going into the Thunder lane was like going into a dark forest. You didn’t know, and you didn’t really even know if, the dragon might appear. But you thought about it. You thought about it a lot.
Jackson admitted that the Thunder might have gotten “a little lazy having somebody that is an eraser back there like that, altering so many shots. Tonight comes down to individual pride, individual defense and too many paint points.”
Let’s be fair to the Spurs. They carved up the Thunder in other ways than taking advantage of Ibaka’s void. San Antonio had three turnovers at halftime. The Thunder didn’t commit a defensive foul the first 10 minutes of the game. Clearly, the Thunder’s defense was lax in ways that have nothing to do with Ibaka.
The Thunder didn’t contain the Spur dribblers. Didn’t react well to the San Antonio passing. The Thunder seemed to play in quicksand the first half. Until Monday night, though, the Thunder had the Ibaka safety net.
“We’re a no-excuse team,” Scotty Brooks said. “Serge is out. He’s not coming back. We have to play better. No matter who we have out there.”
The Thunder found some defensive legs in the third quarter. Kendrick Perkins bodied up Duncan. The Thunder kept Parker and Co. from a layup drill. The Spurs made just five of 17 shots in the third quarter, Russell Westbrook got aggressive offensively in the open court and, amazingly, the Thunder twice took a one-point lead.
But the levee broke. The Spurs got more easy baskets. They broke open the game in the second half same as they did in the first half.
Last May, we learned what the Thunder offense is like without Westbrook. It wasn’t pretty.
Monday night, we learned what the Thunder defense is like without Ibaka. It was even less so.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.