DENVER — Scott Brooks didn't use the excuse because that's not how Scott Brooks rolls.
But he didn't need to.
It was clear for everyone to see.
In its unexpected loss at Utah on Tuesday, the Thunder sorely missed Serge Ibaka.
With its starting power forward and biggest rim protector out with flu-like symptoms, Oklahoma City's defense collapsed. The Thunder allowed the Jazz to shoot an opponent-season-high 58.8 percent from the field and score 112 points — 19 more than their average.
“Every team battles injuries, battles (with) guys missing from flu-like symptoms,” Brooks said. “You just have to have guys step up. We didn't step up defensively. And knowing the way we play, that's unfortunate we didn't play defense the way we're capable of playing.”
Ibaka's absence undoubtedly had a lot to do with that.
And after witnessing the Western Conference's worst team erupt offensively maybe, just maybe, the basketball world will gain a newfound appreciation for Ibaka as more than just a shot-blocking presence on defense.
“People only look at his shot-blocking stats, but he cleans up a lot of our mistakes when we let our guys blow by us,” said Thunder guard Reggie Jackson. “Him being out was a big missing piece for us. They made us pay all game. If you watch it, they just kept attacking us at the rim.”
The Thunder, which entered the Jazz game leading the league in blocked shots, registered only two, a season-low. Kevin Durant had them both.
Without a paint protector in the lineup for the Thunder, the Jazz exploited OKC on pick-and-roll looks that were void of a weak side help defender, as well as on cuts, transition opportunities and isolations that led to dribble drives.
“They proved me wrong, but I didn't think they were going to have the ability to beat us as much as they did off the dribble and off catch-and-gos,” Jackson said. “They really tested our feet all night. They made it difficult on us. Hats off to them. They did a good job noticing that we were missing a big piece, and they just kept going into the paint.”
Jackson went on to note how Jazz forward Gordon Hayward's career night non-coincidentally coincided with Ibaka's absence. Hayward scored a career-high 37 points with 11 rebounds and seven assists. He made 13 of 16 shots.
“He's one of the ones that took real advantage of Serge being out,” Jackson said. “Pick and rolls. Catch and gos. If it was somebody else's catch-and-go, whoever was guarding him might have to help. And he was just putting his head down attacking the rim.”
Tuesday was the first game Ibaka has missed this season and just the third time he's been unable to play since the start of the 2010-11 season. In a way, Ibaka's presence as a fixture in the lineup has made it easy to take his impact for granted.
His shot-blocking has been consistent, but he's come under fire for not being an adequate low-post man defender. He's improved his rebounding numbers but draws more attention for an inability to defend the perimeter.
It's unclear whether Ibaka will be available for Thursday's game at Denver. But if it wasn't before, it's obvious now how much the Thunder needs him, especially against the Nuggets.
Denver is one of the best teams at scoring at the rim, averaging 44.9 points in the paint and 48 in its past three contests.
If Ibaka can't go, the Nuggets could make what happened Tuesday night in Utah look pedestrian.