You never know what you have until it’s gone. Those sage, sentimental words used to be associated with former Thunder sixth man James Harden.
Throughout the course of Monday’s anticlimactic 122-105 Spurs victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, those nostalgic emotions were directed towards the ailing Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka’s exploits away from the basket on the offensive end have become slightly maddening for observers and OKC fans alike who believe he could be more of a force down low that watched the Thunder ship James Harden out for a pack of cigarettes, a draft pick that became Steven Adams and Daryl Morey’s college nudie magazine collection. Watching Harden play restraining order defense should give Thunder fans a greater appreciation for the choice Sam Presti was forced to make. Glimpses of the Thunder defending the paint, like Beyonce defending Jay Z from a Solange melee, was soulcrushing and made fans even more appreciative of Ibaka.
Nothing has been more frustrating than the diminishing playoff availability of their young stars since they flew close to the sun in a wax chariot during their five-game 2012 Finals loss against the Miami Heat.
Presti’s new school architecture project has created a contending estate in OKC built around a pair of gaudy scorers, but right before every grand house party, a new flash flood has saturated their silk rugs, warped the Brazilian ipe wood flooring and sunk title hopes.
Last season, Russell Westbrook’s offensive vacancy in the lineup had the Thunder gasping for points. Ultimately, Kevin Durant was wildly flipped around by the tornado winds caused by Memphis’ swirling defensive rotations.
Against the Spurs, Durant and a rotating cast of gladiator defenders took a stab at singlehandedly caulking the Ibaka hole defensively, but the leak was too gaping for Oklahoma City to fill. During the regular season, the Spurs averaged 41 paint points per game, but scored 66 points in the colored zone while shooting 58 percent from the field.
As the Thunder earn their points through unimaginative isolation sets and a solo dolo offense, the Spurs continuously flowing offense created easy scoring opportunities at the rim for their inside-outside scheme.
The paint was where Serge I-blocka sharpened his blade and warded off paint solicitors. For four straight seasons, Ibaka has been a black hole, spaghettifying more shots than any other shot swatter in the league.
Without Ibaka obstructing the rim, San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter held the nail and Tim Duncan pummeled it into the paint for 27 points and 7 boards.
Ibaka’s over eagerness has been used to his disadvantage against savvier penetrating scorers.
However, Ibaka’s gambles are a building block upon which the Thunder defense was based on. Counter to San Antonio's discipline is the Thunder's YOLO brand of defense that works because of their length and athleticism. Ibaka’s a lengthy rock of muscle in the post, but San Antonio’s old man strength will continue giving Oklahoma City fits.
To counter Ibaka’s absence, the Thunder resorted to a lineup that features Durant at the 5 and reserve Nick Collison. Small ball is a tourniquet for Oklahoma City, but it’s obviously not an elixir.
The scoreless Collison wasn’t effective on the defensive end either. In addition to bleeding all over the court, Collison bled points in the paint as Tim Duncan obliterated he and Kendrick Perkins.
The lone impact player left behind from the Harden dump is the aforementioned Adams, who has been an unexpected upgrade over the awkward pair of Perkins and Collison, but played only 17 minutes in Game 1.
Kevin Durant’s scoring prowess ranks among the high cotton of all-time prolific NBA basket producers, but defensively his sharp joints, twig-like arms and square shoulders have made him a victim down low in the valley of low post bigs.Oklahoma City is still a young team sneaking up on their prime, but the frustrations are piling up exponentially.
Durant’s passiveness isn’t apparent by his 28 points in the box score, but he may have to take more than 19 shots if the Spurs are converting in the lane at this frequency during the remaining of this series.
You never know what you got until it’s gone and the Thunder are on the verge of losing more margin for error in their championship window. The Thunder dug out of a two game hole against San Antonio two years ago to reach the NBA Finals, but this time they’re down Ibaka and Harden.
24-year-olds aren’t supposed to hit a wall. The wind at their youthful backs of their youth is supposed to lift their upward trajectory into the clouds. Instead, the Thunder have been caught in a holding pattern and Ibaka’s injury may ground their title aspirations.
The Thunder knew what they had two years after reaching the finals, but if they don’t assert themselves in deterring the Spurs from attacking their rim, their best title opportunity yet will evaporate in a hurry and they’ll be gone by June.