As soon as they entered the locker room following their series-clinching win in Game 6 over the Los Angeles Clippers, each and every Thunder player knew Serge Ibaka’s injury was severe.
“A lot of us knew after the game it was going to be tough for him to play,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison.
But the disappointment didn’t show.
And it still hasn’t.
“We realize it doesn’t do any good to be sad about it,” Collison said. “You’ve got to be able to come back and be ready to play.”
A setback that appears for many to be a death sentence isn’t seeping into the Thunder’s mindset. If Oklahoma City is supposedly preparing for its funeral against San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals, you sure couldn’t tell from the tone and tenor of Saturday’s practice, where players were remarkably upbeat and a next-man-up mentality pervaded the Thunder’s training center.
“We know that the games still go on and you have to still play. That’s what we’ve learned,” Collison said. “It’s unfortunate, but we realize they’re not going to push back Game 1 to get our guys healthy. That’s not the way it goes. So we got to be ready with the guys we’ve got. We’re confident we can play well.”
Make no mistake. Ibaka’s season-ending calf injury is a huge hurdle the Thunder must overcome. But whether it was last year’s season-ending knee injury to Russell Westbrook, a regular season that brought the most nagging injury bug in the Oklahoma City era or simply the maturation of a roster that prides itself on controlling only what it can control, the Thunder is tackling this hardship with cool heads.
“It’s unfortunate that Serge’s injury took place,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He spends so much time preparing for these moments all season long. (It’s) definitely a setback for us. He does a lot for our team. But we have a mentality here: next man up. We had to overcome some injuries this past season, and we have an expectation that our locker room sets for themselves, come out and play your minutes hard, regardless of the circumstances. We definitely have enough. We definitely have enough to still win this series.”
Most disagree, despite nothing at all being wrong with reigning MVP Kevin Durant or a red-hot Westbrook.
Before Ibaka’s injury was announced, nine of 16 ESPN.com writers picked the Thunder to win the series. After the announcement that number dipped to three.
Brooks, however, doesn’t think the task of keeping his team focused and not caught up in feeding into the negativity will be difficult.
“I think that’s the easy thing with our group. We always have a focus of staying in the moment and staying within our team,” Brooks said. “Don’t worry about what people are saying about our team. That has no bearing on how we feel about ourselves or how we play … We’re going to do everything within our power to play a good basketball game Monday night in San Antonio. We have 48 minutes to prove we are a better team Monday night.”
Brooks declined to disclose who would start in place of Ibaka. He rattled off nearly every player’s name who’s not a starter, saying, perhaps only half-jokingly, that only Grant Jerrett isn’t an option. But Ibaka’s replacement most likely will be Collison or second-year forward Perry Jones III, who started the lone game Ibaka missed this season due to illness.
“We have guys that are going to get opportunities to play,” Brooks said. “We don’t necessarily have the shot-blocker that Serge is, but we have guys that can help us defensively; taking charge, getting into position. Like I said, we have enough to win.”
The Thunder seems to truly believe that.
Even if most everybody else is counting OKC out.
“It ain’t creeping in with us, just people on the outside talking,” said Kendrick Perkins. “We’re confident in the guys we got. Obviously we gonna miss Serge, but one thing about us, we like being counted out. Then after Game 1, we like hearing what y’all say next.”