Ibaka’s absence looms as Spurs offense rolls

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Two years ago in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich challenged his team, somewhat unintentionally, in front of a national audience. “It’s not supposed to be easy,” he shouted during a timeout. “Every round gets tougher.”

Most remember that moment more for the “I want some nasty” soundbite that has made its way to fan-made T-shirts and signs, but it was Popovich imploring his team to match the difficulty of the occasion that resonates the most here at 48MoH.

And yet, the pattern of these playoffs for the Spurs, this year’s version, almost contradict the desperation in Popovich’s voice two years ago. After a seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks in which San Antonio looked in serious danger of crashing out of the postseason far earlier than anyone believed, they cruised against the Portland Trail Blazers in a gentleman’s sweep. And now this.

When it was announced that Serge Ibaka was expected to miss the rest of these playoffs with a calf injury, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that this series would be closer to a cakewalk for the Spurs than a seven-game toss-up.

In taking a 1-0 series lead with a 122-105 win over the Thunder in Game 1, San Antonio was at least reminded for three quarters that advancing to the NBA Finals for the second straight season would take more than just showing up.

What did appear easy, however, was scoring inside. With Ibaka out Oklahoma City’s rim protection was severely lacking and the Spurs outscored the Thunder 66-32 in the painted area.

“That’s what we were really focusing on, knowing that Serge Ibaka was not in there,” Boris Diaw said later. “Right away we went to Timmy and we did a great job, we scored some baskets and made some great passes to the inside.”

Duncan, who finished the game with 27 points, was 6-for-7 from the field in the first quarter and scored 21 by halftime.

When Thunder coach Scott Brooks announced before the game that Nick Collison would take the place of Ibaka in the starting lineup, he cited Collison’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll as one of the key reasons for giving the nine-year pro out of Kansas the start.

“Our pick‑and‑roll coverages are important and Nick is one of our best pick‑and‑roll defenders,” Brook said.

Brooks wasn’t the only one who felt this, it seemed, because the Spurs went away from Collison every time Tony Parker got San Antonio into some pick-and-roll action. Time after time, Parker went away from Collison’s man and attacked Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins in pick-and-rolls.

On one possession early in the third quarter, Duncan attempted to set a pick for Parker near the top of the key. Seeing that Duncan was being defended by Collison, Parker waved off Duncan and pointed at Tiago Splitter, who was defended by Perkins. Recognizing what the Spurs were doing, Collison switched onto Splitter and sent Perkins to Duncan. In the adjustment to the adjustment, Parker then went back to Duncan for the pick and proceeded to try and pick on Perkins yet again in the pick-and-roll.

Collison may be a good pick-and-roll defender, but as the owner of a career average of 0.6 blocked shots per game, he’s not a menace on the help side of the defense. Just as bad is having Perkins try and stop the ball when Tony Parker gets a head of steam coming off a pick. Both of which the Spurs were able to accomplish with some regularity in Game 1.

Per MySynergySports, the Spurs scored 1.26 and 1.38 points per possession in pick-and-rolls on plays ending in a basket, foul or turnover from the ball-handler or roll man, respectively. Basically, the Spurs diced up the Thunder defense for large chunks of this game.

Coming out of halftime with an 11-point lead, the Spurs offense sputtered. Neither Parker, Duncan or Kawhi Leonard—all of whom were in double-figure scoring in the first half—picked up a point until a layup from Duncan nine minutes into the second half. San Antonio shot 36 percent in the third quarter as the Spurs’ misses fueled Oklahoma City’s transition offense, Russell Westbrook in particular, and the Thunder actually took the lead with just under five minutes left in the third.

Arguably the most athletic player at his position in the league, Westbrook is impossible to stop on the break, for all intents and purposes. With so many missed shots coming from the Spurs in the third quarter, Oklahoma City found itself with much more space in transition and fewer bodies in white mucking things up on that end of the floor.

But as soon as the Spurs were able to rely again on their offense, the Thunder’s own attack slowed down.

“That was a main thing,” Diaw said of trying to score well on offense to limit the Thunder’s transition opportunities. “We slowed them down a little bit, but I think we can do better. We gave them some open shots, but it is definitely one of the keys of the game.

“When Westbrook goes coast-to-coast and gets some easy layups, that helps them out.”

There is still a long way to go in this series, however. All San Antonio has done is maintain homecourt advantage. Even if the Spurs win again on Wednesday, there’s no real panic for the Thunder until San Antonio goes into Chesapeake Energy Arena and steals Game 3 or 4.

The Spurs shouldn’t coast through the Western Conference Finals into another appearance in the NBA Finals, but the ease with which San Antonio scored inside in Game 1 is alarming. The Thunder miss Serge Ibaka and will continue to as this series goes along, but Oklahoma City can still make a things interesting over the next three to six games.

It’s not supposed to be easy, but the Thunder missing Ibaka doesn’t make it harder for the Spurs, either.