Monday, May 19, 2014
Thunder playing a two-man game
By Royce Young
The Thunder will need Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook now more than ever.
Kevin Durant paused for just a brief moment to consider the question.
Is there anything you learned from Russell Westbrook's injury last postseason that you can apply to losing Serge Ibaka this postseason?
"Nah," he said. "It's two different monsters."
Durant meant the two situations aren't comparable, but Westbrook and Ibaka are indeed both on-court monsters in their own ways.
"Well, Russ is a top-five player in the world, for one. He's our point guard," Durant said. "Serge is a guy that brings so much to our team. A defensive wiz that comes in and knocks down that jump shot and blocks shot. But we have bigs to come in and try to make up for it, a few of them. But we ran a lot of our offense with Russell, so it's different."
A promising postseason run seemingly sabotaged by an untimely injury. Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have been here before. Last year, it was Westbrook, whose right knee injury in 2013's Round 1 ultimately led to the Thunder's dismissal from the playoffs in Round 2. The lesson from that one was simple: Despite Durant's brilliance, he needs the helping hand of Westbrook.
That fact was obscured some during the regular season, in which Westbrook missed 36 games because of lingering issues with his surgically repaired meniscus. With Westbrook out, Durant became the Slim Reaper, setting fire to opposing defenses like a dragon hunting goats in an open field, and he developed an incredible two-man chemistry with his sweet-shooting power forward. On the season, Durant assisted on Ibaka's baskets more than double the amount of times of any other Thunder player.
Once Westbrook returned, the Thunder tried to restore more balance to their offense. They have run fewer isolated pick-and-rolls with Ibaka and Durant. And in the postseason, Ibaka's usage percentage has dipped to 14.2, down from 19.6 in the regular season, per NBA.com/stats. Ibaka is scoring less (12.2 points, down from 15.1) and taking fewer shots (8.6, down from 12.1).
Westbrook and Durant have been almost exclusively running the show. The duo is using more than 65 percent of the Thunder's total postseason possessions. They're taking 54.4 percent of the Thunder's total postseason shot attempts. In the fourth quarter, it's 68.7 percent of the possessions and 57.5 percent of the shots. In 10 games this postseason, Ibaka is taking just 1.6 shots a game in the fourth.
The Thunder have often turned to Ibaka to be the third scoring option they’ve needed since trading James Harden. Some nights, he's absolutely been it. But for the most part this postseason, he's been mostly complementary.
The lack of a balanced offense has been a glaring issue for the Thunder over the past five seasons. But while they’re at their best when the whole roster is in sync and contributing, the Thunder are at heart the two-man show of Westbrook and Durant, and they can win on the talents of those two alone.
When the Thunder dealt Harden to the Rockets, it made a lot of statements, but the biggest one was also the most obvious: This was now Westbrook and Durant's team. Ibaka could round out a big three of sorts some nights, but they would win on the strength of their offensive dynamos. They know it, too. In his moving MVP speech, Durant saved Westbrook for last. Those two have built a kinship forged through the fires of criticism and scrutiny, finding a common bond in wanting to win at all costs.
The relationship has really only survived because of Durant’s insistence to back Westbrook, offering his unwavering public support at all times. A lesser leader might’ve succumbed to the urge to throw such a bullish player such as Westbrook under the bus. Westbrook takes shots from Durant -- that’s a fact. But Durant doesn’t balk at it. He accepts it. He encourages it. He understands it.
The Thunder will miss Serge Ibaka against the Spurs, but OKC has always been a "Big Two" at heart.
"A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player," Durant said of Westbrook in his MVP speech. "And I’m the first to have your back, man, through it all. Just stay the person you are, man. Everyone loves you here. I love you. I thank you so much, man. You made me better. Your work ethic; I always wanted to compete with you, I always wanted to pull up in the parking lot of the arena or the practice facility, and if you beat me there I was always upset. I always wanted to outwork you. And you set the bar, you set the tone. Thank you so much, man. Thank you. You got a big piece of this [trophy]. You’re an MVP-caliber player and it’s a blessing to play with you."
The Thunder are going to miss Ibaka. There are stats on stats on stats that suggest they're in big trouble against the Spurs in the Western Conference finals without him. (For instance, in the four games between the teams this season, all Thunder wins, the Spurs scored just 93.0 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the floor, and 120.8 with him off.) They can't simply replace his shot-blocking, his post defense, his energy, his intensity, his rebounding or his jump-shooting.
Still, as the Thunder players filed in one by one Saturday to answer questions about coping with the loss of Ibaka, there was a distinctly different feel from when they were answering the similar ones about Westbrook a year ago.
It's not that Ibaka is some unimportant bit piece. It's just that the Thunder have always been about Westbrook and Durant. They were only ever going to go as far as they could take them. Ibaka's injury clouds the picture significantly, but against the Spurs, the Thunder are still going to feature the two best players in the series. More than ever, this is a matchup of team and system against talent and individuality.
The Durant-Westbrook tandem has been tested and constantly questioned, with plenty of skeptics unconvinced they’re actually good for each other. The West finals is their chance to prove a point, to put debates about their cohesiveness to bed for good.
Really, it’s their only option.
Royce Young covers the Thunder and the NBA for ESPN.com. Follow him, @RoyceYoung.