The Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2014 playoff run has been mostly about all the things that have gone perfectly right.
The four-point plays, Reggie Jackson’s Game 4 in Memphis, Russell Westbrook’s wild steal to force overtime in Game 5, Zach Randolph’s suspension, Kevin Durant’s inspiring MVP speech, the impossible comeback against the Clippers -- the Thunder have piled more season-defining moments into one postseason than most teams do in five.
But all it takes for a seemingly charmed season to be completely derailed is one thing to go perfectly wrong.
When Serge Ibaka limped off the court early in the third quarter of the Thunder’s closeout Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, there wasn’t too much initial concern. Ibaka is an ironman, having missed only three games in his five-year career due to injury. He’s carved out of granite, a physical specimen seemingly created in an NBA power forwards lab.
Apparently though, even statues can get hurt. Ibaka is likely done for the remainder of the postseason because of a Grade 2 calf strain. The Thunder taunted the unseen forces that rule basketball one too many times, and now they have had their vengeance.
Obviously this isn’t the first postseason blow the Thunder have been dealt. Westbrook was lost in the first round in 2013 against the Houston Rockets because of a torn meniscus. Ibaka’s injury is less severe, and isn’t something that’s likely to linger into next season like Westbrook’s did. But it all but eliminates the Thunder’s defensive backstop from this postseason, leaving a contender without its third-best player.
Ibaka’s not as impactful as Westbrook, as least not directly. Ibaka averaged 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds on the season with a quality PER of 19.66, and finished second in the league in blocks. He’s not a consistent focal point of the offense, nor is he someone the Thunder are constantly relying upon for game-to-game production. The Thunder can win without Ibaka scoring or rebounding.
Where Ibaka’s absence will be felt is on the defensive interior, where he’s been a huge presence. It’s not always about the shots Ibaka sends careening into the second row. It’s often about the ones he doesn’t, because they get released a little too quickly, or a little too high, and thereby have zero chance of finding the bottom of the net. Ibaka changes an opposing offense simply by becoming a mental obstacle. Consider what Austin Rivers said after Ibaka sent back eight Pelican shots in April:
"When you have a 7-foot guy who can jump, running on a fast break on defense, it's hard to get to the basket,” Rivers said. “Their defense is all on him. Without Ibaka, this is a whole different team."
The Thunder’s title contention plan has been built around an idea of sustainable success, meaning the ability to be among a handful of elite teams with a real chance for a championship every season. After dispatching the Clippers in six games, the Thunder made it three trips to the Western finals in four years, further affirming the plan. There hasn’t been a final payoff yet, but that was starting to feel more and more inevitable as Durant edges closer to legendary status.
Except, the plan has been delayed once again. Or at least apparently so. Internally, the Thunder will try and approach this with a positive mindset, seeing it as part of the continual process, a pebble in the shoe of a long-winding journey.
"We have had this group together for a while, and they've been through some ups and downs, and this is just another one that hopefully is only going to make us better," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said on a conference call Friday.
It’s a nice sentiment, but the NBA is about the here and now, about what happened last.
Grantland's Bill Simmons inadvertently foreshadowed this kind of thing just recently when discussing title windows, saying “Unfortunately, you never know when ‘The Rains of Castamere’ will start playing.”
You can’t plan for injuries and you sure can’t predict them. All you can do is assemble a competitive team, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Injuries have swung championships almost as much as great plays or great players. It’s just part of sports.
Winning a championship is often about the breaks, either good or bad. All of them had been going good for OKC, so it's almost as if some galactic balance needed to be restored. It can't all go that right for a team, can it?
And that’s sort of both the brilliance, and the simultaneously the problem, with such a well-crafted plan. There’s a certain fragility in contending, knowing that one tweaked ankle, one torn meniscus, one sprained calf can blow everything to pieces. The Thunder want to give themselves as many possible cracks as they can at that trophy, to present a team capable of winning the championship every single year.
The more darts you throw, the more chances you have of hitting your target. Though on the other side, the Plan B to it is just to wait for next season and try all over again and hope for better luck.
Westbrook’s injury seemed to strengthen the bond of the team, forcing Durant to understand that he desperately needs his running mate if he wants to claw through the postseason. Any nonsensical noise that the team was better without the mercurial point guard was mostly put to bed in the five-game elimination to the Grizzlies in 2013.
And despite a brief renewed debate during Durant’s “Slim Reaper Era” in January, the way Westbrook has performed this postseason seems to have put it all to bed. In the long term, the Thunder may be better for Westbrook’s absence. That’s the spin the Thunder are going to want to put on this, that they’re well-equipped for the adversity and abide in resiliency.
"For us, we as an organization have been in some situations in the past, and how we respond to those has always been the measure of the teams that we've had in Oklahoma City," Presti said. "Our expectation going forward is that we'll respond admirably."
But we’re talking about a team missing its third-best player. That’s not just something you can overcome with a positive outlook. Ibaka’s impact isn’t as direct as Westbrook's or Durant's, but Ibaka is a perfect offensive pressure release with his pick-and-pop game at the elbows and his ability to catch and finish in traffic.
He’s an anchor on the defensive end, allowing Thunder perimeter defenders to pressure pick-and-rolls and close out on shooters aggressively, knowing there’s insurance waiting at the rim.
So, the question is: Can the Thunder still beat the Spurs?
It was a maybe before, and it remains as such, although now it’s much flimsier. Durant has been on a warpath and might just use this to summon the Reaper again. Westbrook is a nightmare for the Spurs to handle because of his power, strength and size. The Thunder have found a rookie revelation in Steven Adams and have a savvy veteran in Nick Collison to fill in. There’s reason to believe, reason to give them a decent chance.
But if the Thunder’s season ends in failure, it will carry along another caveat. Last season it was about Westbrook; a playoff exit this season would be about Ibaka.
We’ve all been asking when with this team -- when will the process have its payoff?
Eventually bad luck injuries aren’t going to be good excuses anymore.