Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are facing added pressure in the Western Conference Finals.
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We know Kevin Durant will have to play well.
We know Russell Westbrook will have to be special.
And we know someone – anyone – beyond the two Thunder All-Stars will have to play above his means to get past the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
Serge Ibaka is out. The pressure is on. Mostly on Durant and mostly on Westbrook. They’ll have to play more and they’ll have to score more, but here are three players beyond Westbrook and Durant who are the most-affected by Ibaka being out:
The Thunder went 4-0 against the Spurs this year and a lot of it is because of Reggie Jackson. Jackson averaged more than 21 points per game, shot 68 percent and, "Kicked our tail," Spurs coach Greg Popovich told The Oklahoman. "He’s a confident young man. He’s not deferring to anyone."
OKC coach Scott Brooks didn’t say who would be starting in place of Ibaka, but it’s a possibility it could be Jackson. Jackson has started in the past, so the shock factor won’t be an issue, and the Thunder could go small with Perkins at center and Durant in Ibaka’s spot.
Jackson is the best creator on the floor behind Westbrook and Durant and the Thunder’s best bet may be to focus on offense. After all, it’s not like Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are dynamic offensive forces. Perkins and Durant could easily guard the Spurs’ interior players and it would give the Thunder and edge offensively to have Jackson join Durant and Westbrook in the lineup.
We know Jackson will have to play more. He’s averaging 26.7 minutes per game, but now Jackson will have to score more, too, to make up for Ibaka’s absence. He’s averaging 10.7 points per game in the playoffs.
"Who knows," Jackson told The Oklahoman on what it was about his success against the Spurs. "I think this series will tell us.’
2. Steven Adams
Now we get to see if Adams can be consistent. He’s going to play, and he’s going to play a lot. He may even start, and while Adams won’t have to play as well as he did in Game 6 against the Clippers when he went for 10 points and 11 rebounds in 40 minutes , he will have to be on the floor for major minutes.
That means trying to make up for some of the defense that’s missing now that Ibaka is out.
Jackson called Adams a potential Hall of Famer after Game 6. OK, a bit dramatic. He’s payed more than 30 minutes in a game just twice this entire season – the last time coming in November and his inability to stay out of foul trouble is still an issue. He’s also not exactly accomplished as a starter or familiar with guarding a guy like Duncan.
Adams doesn’t have to be a star, but he does need to stay away from fouling out. While Adams is the most-athletic of the Thunder big men, he’ll need to be careful. Foul issues for Adams could mean minutes for Hasheem Thabeet, who hasn’t played any meaningful ones in the postseason.
3. Nick Collison
Perry Jones may get the start, but Collison is going to get the bulk of the pressure. Worry not about who starts the game. Instead, think about who is going to finish it – and Collison is going to be there in the end.
He’s dependable, the best Thunder role player on the team and he saved the Thunder in Game 6 with an amazing second half when the offense seemed to flow smoothly with Collison on the floor.
Collison’s value is easy. He’s a distributor of the ball and doesn’t get lost on defense. Been that way forever in OKC. Things won’t change in this series beyond the fact that with Ibaka out Collison will have to play more.
This position is all about defense. Whether it’s Jones or Collison who gets the start for Ibaka, the success will be determined by who plays the best defense on Splitter.
And that means more pressure on Collison, who is expected to be the Thunder’s best defender now that Ibaka is out.