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.