Even with small ball run amok, NBA championship dreams can only be as big as the bodies sheltering them. In the Thunder’s case, losing chiseled-bodied seven-footer Serge Ibaka greatly hampers a return trip to the NBA Finals. Out with a calf injury for the rest of the postseason, the Thunder will be exposed in the Western Conference Finals against the methodical Spurs in two key areas.
1. They’ll Have No Inside Man
Against the Spurs this season, Ibaka averaged 4.0 blocks. That’s tied for his third-best blocking output against opponents and is further augmented by the fact that it came against the best team of the six that dot the results. Simply put: Iblocka is very good at limiting San Antonio’s pinball offense.
With Ibaka on the court, the Thunder make a team who is insanely good at scoring from within five feet at the basket significantly challenged. Against the league, the Spurs shoot 63.5 percent from five feet in. Against Ibaka and company? 46.6 percent. To further his worth, when the Thunder play against San Antonio while Ibaka rests, they allow 63.5 percent of the same shots. As a team whose offense is powered by in-the-paint points at a 43.6 percent rate, Ibaka’s presence hurts Popovich’s squadron immensely.
As a result (and because Ibaka also helps keep SA off the free and three-point lines—more on the second below), San Antonio morphs into a mid-range shooting team, which has spelled disaster when playing OKC. Used to gaining their points from the mid-range at a 17.2 percent mark during the season, the Spurs have relied on the mid-range for 23.6 percent of their points when Oklahoma is involved. During the year, the mid-range shot has been San Antonio’s least effective, recording an effective field court percentage of 40.3.
2. Three-Bombs Will Fly
As an athletic seven-footer, Ibaka has the ability to close out on three-point shooters. This has ensured that San Antonio devolves from a team making 42.3 percent of their left corner threes, 39.3 percent of their right corner threes, and 39.6 percent of their above the break threes, to one going for 20.0, 20.0, and 39.1. Again, when the Thunder have been without the Serge Protector this season, San Antonio’s offense has played much better. With Ibaka benched, the four-time champions shoot appropriately so. In the three three-ball categories, they’ve gone for 60.0, 66.7, and 50.0 percent with Ibaka resting (which he’s done little off as he’s averaged 36.9 minutes against them in 2013-14).
With Nick Collison and Steven Adams taking over for Ibaka, the Thunder still owns the tool set required to unseat the Spurs. But without an able-bodied defender of Ibaka’s size and quality, they might just have to dream a little smaller.