By Randy Renner
To a man, and we spoke with several today, the Oklahoma City Thunder players and their head coach are confident in the abilities of whoever steps into Serge Ibaka's starting spot on Monday night in San Antonio.
"Whoever comes up off that bench we know they're ready to play," said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, "they've all worked hard in practice and they're ready, they're ready."
"We've had to overcome some injuries this past season and now, just like then, it's next man up," Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said.
As to just who exactly that man will be Brooks wouldn't say. He knows or at least he said "we're comfortable where we are right now in our preparations," but he likely won't reveal who'll replace Ibaka in the starting lineup until shortly before game time Monday.
Speculation has mostly centered on veteran Nick Collison, who filled in for Ibaka after he was hurt in the third quarter of Game 6 against the Clippers.
“Nick can make the simple play immediately without having a second to react whether it’s a dribble hand off or just a swing-swing pass or a pin down,” Brooks said. “He obviously has great experience, a feel for the game and great chemistry with our scorers with our screening, and his ability to make plays off a backdoor cut. His IQ is very high and he has a great understanding on how to play and a great understanding of doing whatever it takes to win mentality.”
Brooks ran through about eight names of guys who could potentially be there, two of the others most likely to either start at power forward or see extended minutes there are Perry Jones, who at 6-11 allows the Thunder to be big while playing small because Jones has some hops down low to maybe block a shot or two but he can also be a threat from out on the perimeter. And of course there is rookie center Steven Adams who could potentially slide over to power forward depending on certain matchups.
Adams has been getting better and better the deeper the Thunder go in the playoffs. He was on the floor 40 minutes (a career-high) against the Clippers in Game 6.
"It was hard," Adams said of the extended minutes, "my body afterwards, I felt like an old man. I got familiar with playing while I was fatigued, now I have to get comfortable with it."
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook said one player won't be able to fill Ibaka's shoes so everyone will have to step up and play more as a team without depending on Ibaka being at the rim to clean up any mistakes.
"We're going to have to play team defense," Westbrook said. "We're not going to take the onus on ourselves to block shots and do what Serge does because no body can do that."
Ibaka had just finished the best regular season of his career averaging 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds while again leading the NBA in blocked shots.
And during the regular season Ibaka's presence dramatically altered the way the Spurs like to play. In the four regular season games the Spurs shot 46.6 percent from inside five feet with Ibaka protecting the rim and with Ibaka on the bench San Antonio was able to hit 63.6 percent of shots taken within five feet.
Also the Spurs averaged just 93.0 points per 100 possessions with Serge on the floor and a whopping 120.8 with him sitting down.
Obviously with Ibaka not being on the floor at all in this series, the Thunder have to find a way to move those numbers back down.
In general the Spurs have played consistently very well so far during the playoffs shooting 49.3 percent from the field, tops among playoff teams. They're also scoring 105.5 points per game and are knocking down 38.8 percent of their 3-pointers.
So it's not going to be easy.
“Defensively, you really have to be on,” Collison said. “You have to have all five guys engaged. That ball is moving so quickly. If you don’t have all five guys in tune with what is going on, that’s when they get open threes and open layups. Defensively, getting back, getting in front of them and getting into our defense is big.”
Kevin Durant agreed with that strategy.
“We have to get back in transition,” Durant said. “They’ve been pushing it a lot. We have to control the three-point line and just man up on defense. One on one defense is going to be key.”
One of the other big keys is going to be attitude.
Last season when Westbrook went down in the Rockets series, there was doubt. The Thunder had never had to play without a member of their core group. Players wondered if they could make up for the loss.
Now a year later the Thunder have weathered more injury storms, Westbrook returning to the lineup then having to leave again. Perkins missing a month and Thabo Sefolosha too.
They have made a habit of dealing with adversity, adjusting and moving on.
Saturday when the players spoke with the media there was no fear in their voices and no doubt or confusion in their minds.
They had been detoured down this road before and weren't concerned about being able to reach their destination.
Their coach summed up their feelings, confidently declaring, "we definitely still have enough to win this series."