Thunder lose Serge Ibaka just days before conference finals
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.)
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.