Thunder advances to Western Conference Finals, loses Serge Ibaka

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By Kevin Green

I have to say, it’s amazing what this Oklahoma City Thunder team can do sometimes. They flirted with disaster in Round One against the Memphis Grizzlies, where they nearly went down 3-1 but were saved by Reggie Jackson on a night Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook barely showed up. OKC won two of the next three games and moved on. Then in the Western Conference Semifinals, they went from nearly being up 3-1 against the Los Angeles Clippers to nearly being down 3-2 in a blink of an eye. They gave up a huge lead in the fourth quarter on Game 4 that cost them the game, and then with 49 seconds left in Game 5 and down by seven, it looked as if the hangover was just a bit much to overcome. However, the Thunder found a way again and went on an improbable run to secure the victory and assume a 3-2 lead in the series. It seemed like anything that could go in OKC’s favor did indeed go their way, but you know what they say – in order to win championships, you have to have a little luck.

Fortunately for the Thunder, they didn’t need luck in Game 6. Oklahoma City got off to a slow start in the first quarter, but won the next three quarters by a score of 98-68 on their way to a 104-98 win to close out the series and advance to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four seasons.

Just as Doc Rivers said in the Game 5 post-game press conference, the Clippers were ready to play. They jumped out to a 30-16 lead in the first 12 minutes, and that’s not even the craziest part of the sloppy quarter by the Thunder. Los Angeles virtually shut down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, holding them to three points on 1-11 shooting. However, Thabo Sefolosha and Steven Adams made up for the lack of offensive power, knocking down 5-8 shots for 11 points. That’s right, Thabo and Adams scored 11 of Oklahoma City’s 16 first quarter points. Something about this game just didn’t feel right, but of course, I wasn’t jumping ship just yet because if I’ve learned anything from the Thunder’s playoff run, it’s that they absolutely love to put together incredible comebacks.

With 10 minutes to go in the second quarter, Derek Fisher hit a 20-footer to cut the lead to ten, but then the Thunder launched a barrage of threes, allowing the Clippers to go on a mini 6-0 run to extend the lead to 16 points at 39-23. OKC scored the next four points on a Serge Ibaka jumper and two free throws by Westbrook, and that’s when Kevin Durant happened. It’s almost like Los Angeles’ domination in the first 17 minutes of the game was necessary to finally get the NBA’s MVP going after his 1-7 start. KD hit three three-pointers straight, increasing the Thunder’s run to 13-0 and cutting the Clippers’ lead to 41-36. However, we all know how much Oklahoma City loves to shoot threes, and since Durant hit three of them in a row, everyone else figured they could start making them too, despite shooting 2-9 from beyond the ark before KD’s run. The Thunder shot four straight threes, missing three of them, and in the meantime, Los Angeles put together a 9-0 run to push the lead back to 14, 50-36 with 1:54 to go until halftime. Reggie Jackson then scored four of OKC’ next six points to send the Thunder to the locker room only down eight.

In the second half, KD came out firing, scoring Oklahoma City’s first seven points and finishing 5-5 from the floor in the quarter.  Though the Clippers struggled guarding Durant, they were able to keep their distance until Nick Collison hit a wide-open three with 1.4 seconds left in the third quarter to tie the game at 72 apiece.

The fourth quarter would come down to who wanted it more. With 7:58 remaining in the game, Chris Paul tied the game at 80 and it looked like neither team would go down easily, but then KD and Westbrook took over. The two scored 21 of the Thunder’s 32 points in the fourth quarter, finishing off the Clippers once and for all. Westbrook scored 10 of his 19 points in the quarter.

Oklahoma City is now back in the Western Conference Finals after a one-year absence, but since the Thunder is such a dramatic team, it just wouldn’t feel right if there wasn’t some kind of drama to go along with the win to make it bitter sweet.

Midway through the third quarter, Serge Ibaka headed to the locker room limping, never returning to the game. During the post-game press conference, Scott Brooks said Serge will probably be alright, but the next day we found out otherwise. Sam Presti issued a statement saying that Ibaka will miss the remainder of the playoffs with a grade-2 strain on his left calf.

“We are obviously disappointed for Serge, as he is a tremendous competitor, and we know how badly he wants to be on the court with his teammates,” Sam Presti said in the statement. “At this point it is important that our team directs its concentration and energy towards preparation and execution for our upcoming series.  As with all teams, our group has confronted different challenges. It is our collective experience that we will call on to ensure that we play to our capabilities.”

Obviously, this is a huge blow for the Thunder and it couldn’t have come at a worse time or against a better team – the San Antonio Spurs. Immediately after this news broke, so many people jumped off the Oklahoma City bandwagon it was almost unreal. I’ve seen predictions go from the Thunder winning in six or seven games to the Thunder losing in five or six games, but I can’t really blame those people. Ibaka not only plays a major role on the defensive side of the ball, but also on the offensive side. Remember that one game in the playoffs two years ago when Serge went 11-11 from the floor? Yeah, that was against the Spurs in a closeout game, and he’s only gotten better since then. Over the past couple of years, Ibaka has turned into one of the most efficient shooters on the Thunder roster. In fact, he had a better shooting percentage than Kevin Durant (45.3%) and Russell Westbrook (42.5%), knocking down almost 62 percent of his shots, a number only bested by Steven Adams, who shot 69.2 percent this season. Granted, he doesn’t shoot as much as Durant and Westbrook, but he makes his shots when he gets the chance. And that’s not all. Ibaka averaged 14 points on 46.3 percent shooting with 11.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks against San Antonio this season. That’s some pretty impressive numbers.

Of course, then there’s the defensive side. The Spurs shot 46.6 percent inside of five feet with Ibaka on the floor, and 63.6 percent with him off. That makes things sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it? For the people that are saying this is not a big deal are horribly mistaken. The Thunder can’t just simply replace Ibaka, although they don’t really have a choice.

There are several different lineup Brooks can roll with, but which one will he ultimately choose? He could start Perry Jones, the same guy who played in Serge’s spot in the one game he sat this season, but Jones is young and I’m not sure he could handle the amount of pressure that would be put on his shoulders. He could put a seasoned Collison in his place, but if he did that he would also have to start either Caron Butler or Jackson in place of Sefolosha or Adams in place of Kendrick Perkins in order to have any type of offense outside of Durant and Westbrook. Moving Durant to the 4 would be a move he could go with as well while putting Jackson or Butler out there at the 2, but that move could get Durant in early foul trouble, something OKC has to avoid at all costs. Personally, I’d like to see Westbrook, Jackson, Collison, Durant and Perkins in the starting lineup. I feel like that would be a good balance of offense and defense, and going small is probably the Thunder’s best bet anyways.

So can the Thunder still win this thing? I believe they can. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch, but if players like Collison, Adams and Butler can step up, then we’ll have ourselves one heck of a series. On the other hand, if the correct adjustments aren’t made fast enough, then OKC could find themselves down big. In my opinion, this series is not going to end up like the 2012 Western Conference Finals. The Thunder has to win at least one of the opening two games in San Antonio. I don’t see them coming back from a 2-0 deficit this time around, especially without Ibaka. From the beginning, I liked the Thunder’s matchup with the Spurs. I’m picking the Thunder to win Game 1, but since I do not know how OKC will play without Serge, I cannot make an accurate prediction, so I reserve the right to pick the winner of the series after Game 1.

Game 1 tips off tonight at 8 pm.

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