Thunder lose Serge Ibaka just days before conference finals

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The good fortune necessary to make a deep playoff run toward the NBA Finals is something we’re seemingly reminded of on a yearly basis — something the Spurs know quite well — and for the second straight season our memories have been jogged at the expense of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On Friday afternoon, the Thunder announced Serge Ibaka will likely miss the rest of the postseason with an injury to his left calf, leaving OKC with a major void in its starting lineup only days before the start of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

Ibaka suffered the injury in OKC’s series-clinching win over the Clippers on Thursday, when his leg got tangled underneath Chris Paul after the big man attempted to block a floater. Paul appeared to fall on Ibaka’s left leg as the two hit the ground, pinning it in an awkward but not noticeably damaging way. But the Thunder’s best defender immediately got up rubbing his calf, left the game and retreated to the locker room.

This statement from OKC general manager Sam Presti:

“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,” Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said in a 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.”

Reports out of OKC are saying the injury is a grade 2 strain of the plantaris muscle, and the recovery period is lengthy because of a high re-injury risk. Here’s an excerpt from a Sports Injury Clinic post on what we’re talking about, something actually known as ‘tennis leg.’

Tennis leg is a tear or rupture of the plantaris muscle and possibly the medial head or inside of the gastrocnemius muscle which is the larger of the two calf muscles.

The Plantaris muscle is a thin muscle in the back of the lower leg, which attaches just above the knee on the outside, passes down the back of the calf and inserts on to the heel bone. It’s function is to assist the larger calf muscles in plantar flexing the ankle or pointing the foot down. This muscle is actually absent in up to 15% of the population.

The injury most frequently occurs due to a force or trauma to the leg whilst the knee is straight. Movements such as jumping or pushing off may also cause tennis leg. Both movements are frequent in tennis, hence the development of the term tennis leg to describe this injury.

And how’s that for luck? Fifteen percent of the human population doesn’t even have the muscle Ibaka injured. This is a huge blow to the Thunder just one season after Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs; and while Westbrook is the more crucial player, Ibaka’s impact against the Spurs this season has been massive.

In the 148 minutes the OKC shot-blocking terror has been on the floor against the Spurs this season, San Antonio managed to shoot a putrid 42.3 percent from the floor with a true-shooting mark of 49.3, nearly 8 percent worse than its regular-season average. Near the rim, where Ibaka’s presence is most noticeable, the splits are even more dramatic. The Spurs shot 48 percent at the rim when he was on the floor during the teams’ four games against one another; when he was off, that number ballooned to 61.9 percent.

Even more startling are the 3-point numbers. Ibaka’s ability to singlehandedly protect the paint allows perimeter defenders to stick with shooters, scramble aggressively and close out hard when the Spurs kick the ball out to the arc. San Antonio shot 33 percent from deep when he was on the floor against them this season; when he was off, the NBA’s top 3-point shooting team launched away at better than 54 percent.

Interestingly enough, 37 percent of the Spurs’ field-goal attempts came from inside the restricted area when Ibaka was on the court as opposed to just 29 percent when he was resting. You might think the inverse would be true, but that’s not the case here given that his presence affects the game both at the rim and 25 feet away. San Antonio had to attack when Ibaka was on the court, mainly because they couldn’t get good looks from the 3-point line. Unfortunately, that meant challenging one of the league’s best shot-blockers.

(Spurs’ shot chart with Ibaka on/off court.)

IbakaSC

Get this: San Antonio managed only 93 points per 100 possessions in Ibaka’s shadow this season, compared to a staggering 120.8 offensive-efficiency rating in the 48 minutes his butt was on the bench*. This news isn’t Durant- or Westbrook-level devastating for OKC, but it’s damn close. He’s been so incredibly important for that team against the Spurs this season, and his absence will greatly swing the forecast of this series.

*One quick note: The Thunder scored more than 133 points per 100 possessions in those 48 minutes Ibaka was on the bench. But much of that has to do with the fact that during most of those minutes he spent off the floor, the Spurs’ bench was on it, and we all know how bad that group is defensively. For instance, Marco Belinelli was on the floor for 30 of those 48 minutes, and San Antonio’s defensive-efficiency rating was worse than 158 (!!!) during that span. Gross.

I hate looking at it from this perspective, but this is a Spurs blog and we’re all adults here: This is a gigantic break for San Antonio, and it should make them pretty solid favorites to win the Western Conference. He causes such a tremendous amount of hesitation around the rim for the Spurs’ drive-and-kick game, and without him on the floor, penetrators won’t be constantly having to look over their shoulders as they attack the rim.

Still, the Thunder frontcourt is deep, and guys like Nick Collison and the young, energetic, frustrating, exciting Steven Adams are capable of pulling their own weight. Those two make life very difficult on the boards, which will pose a problem for San Antonio. But without Ibaka, Scott Brooks may have to rely on Kendrick Perkins more often than he already excessively does. He’s an effective defender on Duncan for short stretches, but if he has to play extended minutes around the smaller five-man units for the Spurs, he’ll be seeing little silver-and-black circles running around him in his sleep.

It will be interesting to see how OKC approaches this. Nick Collison has been such a good bench player for so long, and Adams is the guy likely capable of playing bigger minutes, but the latter doesn’t quite have the experience at this level of the postseason. So we’ll see.

The bottom line is, this sucks. The best part about sports is watching these teams battle at their best, and regardless of what happens that’s just not going to be the case here. Ibaka is one of the best defenders in the league, if not the best, and we’ve seen what he can do out of those pick-and-pop and spot-up situations.

This thing isn’t a done deal though. This Thunder team is still damn good without him, and handling their two superstars — one being the freaking MVP of the league — is going to be a massive chore. It was shaping up to be an epic series, but this injury really takes a lot of air out of the excitement balloon.

Spurs-Thunder is still going to be entertaining, but has it been unfortunately smudged by a black mark before the opening tip even goes in the air? Injuries happen to everyone at some point, as it’s all part of the process of the NBA grind. Asterisks are lame, and if the Spurs win this series more people will be calling for one; but if the Thunder win, you can bet that crowd won’t make a peep.

Statistical support courtesy of the NBA.com media stats page.


  • Graham

    Hate the preemptive excuses. I wanted a straight up Series with them with both teams at 100%. I can already hear the ‘If Ibaka was healthy we would have won’ just like last year’s ‘If Russ was healthy we would have won’

    Thunder still Dangerous, but they don’t have the overpowering athletic advantage anymore that was their main strength.

  • Graham

    So here’s a question: does this destroy any chance the Thunder have of sucessfully playing small? If we see Durant at the 4 I imagine Pop immediately counters with Leonard at the 4 and an extra wing. Without Ibaka their 5 wouldn’t have the mobility to hedge on Tony’s PnR game and lots or rim runs could open up, and if they start packing it in that just opens up the shooters. I don’t think the thunder have the firepower to match with that lineup.

  • Dusty

    So… Is it bad that I just want the Spurs back in the finals at any cost? I’m not saying I’m happy that he got hurt but if it’s going to help the Spurs, I’m not going to sit here and lie and say this news has me upset.

    I mean look at it from this perspective. The Spurs won the 07 championship with a big assist from the Warriors for knocking off the Mavericks, our matchup nightmare. Would you rather us have played Dallas in that year with a solid chance they beat us and not have our ring now?

  • Lolek

    let’s go Spurs! beat OKC! fan here from Cebu, Philippines!

  • Jimbo

    Wow, tough break for Ibaka and the Thunder, who along with last year are missing out on some of their “open window” years. I hope he recovers and comes back strong- even as a Spurs fan, I love watching the guy play.

    I hate to be a bad Spurs fan, but I think OKC would have won this series (and the title) if healthy. Who knows they still might, but I agree Spurs are now the solid favorite. I can’t even imagine how good that team would be if Pop or Carlisle or someone like that were coaching it. But then again, the Spurs have had their own bad injury luck; I think they would have won Game 6 or Game 7 last year against Miami but for Parker’s hamstring.

    Here’s hoping TP is ready to go, and the Ind-Mia series goes 7 grueling games.

  • idahospur

    My thought is how many years have the Spurs gone down because of injuries. It’s sad but it is part of the game. That is why good coaches also know how to physically prepare their team for the postseason.
    Finish the Thunder off quickly to just show the Spurs are the better team.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    Lots of mixed feelings here…

    I want the Spurs to get back at Miami so badly, and this kinda paves the way if Parker is healthy. But the Thunder, not the Heat, are the Spurs’ true nemesis, and I wanted our boys to take them down once and for all with both teams at full strength. I agree, this sucks, but it kinda doesn’t, you know what I mean?

    And yes I agree with another poster: Would the Spurs have lost to the Grizzles if Ginobili wasn’t playing with one arm in 2011? Does Parker with a totally healthy hamstring push us over the top against the Heat? Do we even get to the 2013 Finals if Westbrook’s knee doesn’t get hurt? You see where I’m going with this. Injuries are just part of it, I guess. Beat whoever is in front of you, and move on.

  • Chris FOM

    How many people remember that we were a Parker hamstring from winning the Finals just last year (or any one of a dozen plays falling our way instead of Miami’s)? Or various Manu injuries from repeating in 08? Or a Tim Duncan knee from likely repeating in 2000 (the one year in the Lakers three championships where the Spurs completely had their number)? Injuries happen and they’re a part of the game. Very few teams are at 100% this time of year, which is partly luck but also coaching. The fact that no Spur hit 30 minutes a game this season is intentional and completely on Pop. It’s bad luck for the Thunder, but losing your third best player is hardly grounds for sticking any sort of meaningful “yes but” on the series. All that matters is who hosts the trophy when the last game is played, the rest only exists in the team’s fandom (of which I’m admittedly guilty, as I can easily recite the five championships we had slipped out from under us and how, but I also don’t think a single non-Spurs fan cares).

  • The Kawhiet Storm

    Huge blow for OKC. Although, the stats in the 4 meetings during the regular season are a bit misleading. The Spurs only played the last meeting at “full strength” Including a couple without Kawhi. People forget that in 2012 the biggest reasons OKC beat us were flukey shooting from Ibaka/Perkins and more notably James Harden answering all our runs with timely, momentum killing 3′s. Ibaka gives us problems for sure but nothing insurmountable. I’m confident we would have won the series in 7 with OKC at full strength, who aside from Durant in a few games has not looked terribly sharp. The offensively challenged Grizz were a Randolph “punch” away from possibly bouncing them in the first round. I wish both teams could meet at full strength to remove any doubts but them’s the breaks. Maybe a little Karma for some things the Thunder got away with last series?

  • spurs10

    The Thunder has received very much good fortune thanks to the refs. Maybe there is such a thing as karma. I am much more concerned about Tony to be honest. I hope we beat the hell out the Thunder.

  • spurs10

    Yeah, Grizz without Z Bo and the Clips playing 8 against 5 isn’t exactly even Steven.

  • lummox pandit

    Agree 100000% You never want to have an excuse or see an injury, especially with TP always being a question mark lately, but this is a huge bonus for us and now I think we take our place at the top once again!

  • lummox pandit

    agreed!

  • Graham

    We cared, which is why we will be dealing with it every time we deal with the Thunder, they will constantly bring it up. I’ve no doubt after a year or two it will be forgotten for the most part, but it will be a footnote. The main difference is Manu and Tony Played, and Ibaka won’t.

  • SpurredOn

    I don’t quite share your opinion that the series has been “tarnished”. One could say the same with parker obviously at less than 100%, s he was after gm3 of last year’s Finals, yet no one speaks to the Heat championship as tarnished. OKC has depth at this position, and two all-world players who may now play even better over a ten day stretch to make up for a lost teammate. Great players do such things.

    I also think we should remember to take regular season stats with hesitation. The 2012 Spurs were 3-1 vs OKC in the regular season. This year’s Nets 4-0 vs Miami. We all know the difficulty Portland’s offense created for the Spurs this season and the prior five, yet they were no factor last series. While Ibaka is a key cog for the Thunder, I wonder how those stats would’ve looked had Kawhi not missed nearly two full games, with Danny Green & Tiago missing one of those with him?

  • SpurredOn

    I was looking forward to Spurs-Mavs in 2007. Avery had maxed out his team that reg season; they peaked trying to have the #1 overall seed, played heavy minutes, and they were mentally soft. No doubt in my mind that the Spurs would’ve defeated them in a highly competitive series.

    That year (and others since) shows why it’s more important to use the reg season to prepare one’s team to make a playoff run. There are no regular season championship trophies.

  • Matthew R Tynan

    You’re right. Tarnished probably wasn’t the right word. I made a little change.

  • fkj74

    All championships are won with a bit of luck and lost with a bit of bad. That is just the way of things. Lord knows we have had our share. I worry about our menal state. Will we let down? Will our intensity suffer? I hope not. Picked Spurs by 6 before, now we should take it in 5. Go Spurs!

  • spurs10

    Ibaka being out is almost as bad for them as TP playing on one leg is for us. Get well Tony!

  • spur6

    OKC did not really beat Grizzly on its own as Zach was suspended. OKC did not really beat LAC as several bad calls went wrongly against LAC. For all that, Ibaka and OKC appear paying now.

  • NP

    The issue for OKC with Collison and Adams is that they both foul a lot. They can be effective in limited minutes, but they will foul out if asked to play 30+ minutes

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  • landy1282

    This is a great piece. Very interesting stats you mention. I thought the same thing re: the Spurs’ ability to open up the 3-point line with Ibaka out. Look for the Spurs to attack Perkins and get him into foul trouble early. Spurs offense is gonna hum, and I see them scoring 100 or more points in the first game.

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