Thunder face different challenge from last year with loss of key starter
MAY 17, 2014 11:48p ET
OKLAHOMA CITY â About this time, a season, ago, the Thunder knew exactly what they were up against.
Losing Russell Westbrook will do that.
This season, another injury, this one to a different starter, the Thunder don't know what's to come.
The Thunder players and coaches would never admit it, but they knew losing Westbrook in the first round of the playoffs last season, was a death sentence. It eventually proved to be the case as the Thunder scraped by in the first round but were beaten in five games in the second round by Memphis.
Now we're about to find out how much the Thunder are going to miss Ibaka starting Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at San Antonio.
The answer isn't quite as clear.
"The games still go on," said forward Nick Collison. "That's we've learned. "It's unfortunate (Ibaka's injury), but we need to be ready wit the guys we got."
The same reasoning was used last year, but was less believable, especially in hindsight and seeing exactly how the Thunder stagnated offensively without Westbrook and how good, in fact, Westbrook has been this year and how badly OKC has missed him when he's been out.
But the same reasoning cannot be assumed this time around.
Certainly, Ibaka is one of the league's premier defenders, and as Kevin Durant described Ibaka in Durant's MVP speech, Ibaka cleans up a lot of mistakes.
But losing Ibaka is not like losing Westbrook. It can be overcome.
"It's unfortunate that Serge's injury took place," Brooks said. "He spent so much time preparing for these moments. It'd definitely a setback for us. Our mentality is, 'Next man up.' We definitely have enough to win this series. Our guys are excited about the challenge."
And certainly that challenge would have been steep with Ibaka, but Brooks is right. Ibaka has been good during the playoffs, but not game-changing good. He's averaged 12.2 points and 7.3 rebounds in the playoffs but is only averaging 8.6 attempts per game. He never got more than seven rebounds in a game against the Clippers and didn't have more than 10 attempts against L.A., either.
None of this is being said to disparage Ibaka. After all, he's a premier, elite defender, who led the league in blocked shots for the fourth-consecutive season, averaged a career-best 15.1 points per game as well as 8.8 rebounds.
It's said in comparison to Westbrook.
Without Westbrook, Durant gets dogged. Beat on. Triple-teamed. Harassed because the Thunder don't have a legit No. 2 scorer. They do have the mentality Brooks mentioned, but they don't have the established sidepiece for Durant. They need both Westbrook and Durant.
Without Ibaka, the Durant-Westbrook combo can still thrive. Yes, the defense takes a hit, but because the Thunder are so good offensively, they still have an out: OKC can win games on offense alone. It's not ideal, but it's a possibility.
It happened â for the most part against the Clippers. Ibaka was good in Game 1-3 (21-of-29 combined shooting) but absent Games 4-6 on offense (18 total shots). Ibaka had only five attempts in Game 6 and just two rebounds in 26 minutes.
Collison and Steven Adams don't have the defensive reputation the Ibaka has, but were more than serviceable in the Game 6 win. The two combined for 14 points and 13 rebounds. Adams played a season-high 40 minutes Thursday against the Clippers.
"We're going to need everybody," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said Friday. "These are the reasons why. You have to deal with the unexpected. It's what you do in advance of that. We're more prepared than we have been."
Brooks wouldn't commit to saying who would start in Ibaka's place, but count on a combination of Collison and Adams getting a bulk of the minutes.
"Guys are going to have to step up," Durant said.
Yes, he's right about that, but it's not as dire as the situation in 2013. The Thunder weren't going to win without Westbrook.
They can without Ibaka.
"We have enough to win," Brooks said. "We have 48 minutes to prove it (Monday). We have some options."
Yep, a lot more than they had last year at this time.
Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK