Another plague has dropped on a Thunder playoff run, another Thunder post-season wounded by major injury, another bitter blow for this franchise that once seemed sun-kissed but now seems star-crossed.
Serge Ibaka is lost for the Western Conference Finals, and that noise you hear is Riverwalk celebration. Ibaka was a Spur burr. Usually played very well against the San Antonios. Before the news hit Friday of Ibaka’s severe calf injury, the Alamo number crunchers already could tell you that the Spurs this season scored 108 points per 100 possessions – unless Ibaka was on the court. Then the Spurs scored 93 points per 100 possessions.
Now, just as Russell Westbrook’s torn meniscus paved the way for the Spurs to sail into the NBA Finals last spring, the path has been cleared again for San Antonio.
But wait. Hope is not lost in Thunderland. Let’s see. Ibaka’s strained calf robs the Thunder of a tall, athletic, shot-blocking, shot-making, rebounding wonder. Those things are hard to find. Unless you look four lockers down from Ibaka’s.
Seems strange to ask the guy who does everything to do even more. But that shouldn’t stop the Thunder. You need a reasonable facsimile for Senor’ Serge? Who better than Durant? When the other team has the ball, Durant is a poor-man’s Ibaka.
Rim protection? Durant has had five games these playoffs with at least two blocked shots. He doesn’t have the cross-the-lane-and-swat-away-a-layup timing that Ibaka does, but few do. Durant had five blocks in Game 3 against Memphis. He’s averaged a block per game in his career, without spending much time in the lane. Most of Durant’s defensive assignments are out on the perimeter.
Rebounding? Durant had 16 Thursday night in the series-clinching win against the Clippers. Durant averaged 7.4 rebounds this season (Ibaka led the squad at 8.8) and 9.5 in these playoffs. Tell Durant he has to rebound, and he’ll rebound.
Post defense? Well, that’s where the comparison withers. Durant isn’t the inside muscle that Ibaka can be. But good news. The muscle teams are in the past. No more Memphis, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. No more Clippers, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Spurs have skilled and talented big men, but Tim Duncan no longer is a behemoth, Boris Diaw never was and Tiago Splitter might never be. Durant can guard Diaw and Splitter if need be.
Scotty Brooks likes to go with a small lineup anyway. He could go full time, if he likes. Play Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams, Nick Collison, whoever fits best at the time, at center, and let the Spurs figure out what to do with Durant as a full-time power forward.
It’s not ideal. It’s not as good as having Ibaka still on the court, threatening to reject Tony Parker’s underhanded layups or Kawhi Leonard’s drives. But necessity is the mother of invention.
We’ve already seen Durant remake himself this very season. When Russell Westbrook was lost for big chunks of the year, Durant became facilitator. Scored the touchdowns and quarterbacked. It was a remarkable string of performances and the prime reason he won the MVP and was able to deliver the speech of the century.
And we’ve seen playoff plagues cause other great players to transform themselves. Magic Johnson replaced the ailing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals and led the Lakers past the 76ers. LeBron James plays whatever position the Heat needs. Durant is a different player from LeBron, but Durant is no less versatile.
Worse cast scenario, the Spurs eliminate the Thunder, but Durant accumulates new skills and experience that just make him even more of a dominant player.
Brooks has other options. The emergence of Adams makes the loss of Ibaka almost bearable. Collison proved Thursday night he’s a valuable hand. Hasheem Thabeet still is 7-foot-3, still is on the Thunder roster and still is hard to shoot over. Perry Jones is an intriguing talent with Durant-like defensive skill.
But the answer to filling Ibaka’s gaping hole is the answer you get to a lot of questions concerning the Thunder.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.