- Royce Young, NBA Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- As the Oklahoma City Thunder lined up for tipoff, there was a moment of confusion. They'd spent the past few days game planning nonstop on how to cover for the absence of Serge Ibaka, but failed to start at the beginning.
But that was just the start of missing Ibaka for the Thunder in Game 1.
The Thunder didn't want to admit as much following the San Antonio Spurs' clinical 122-105 takedown, but the proof is on the stat sheet. San Antonio scored 14 of its first 18 points in the paint, and didn't stop there. In total, the Spurs piled up 66 points in the paint, relentlessly attacking the chasm left by Ibaka's void. They hit 31-of-43 (72.1 percent) inside the restricted area. It was a run to the rim, and the Thunder didn't have anyone to slow it down.
And while like last postseason the excuse is built in for the Thunder, the final score is always unforgiving.
"We're a no-excuse team. Serge is out. He's not coming back," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Contrary to what San Antonio was thinking, he's not coming back. He's not coming through those doors."
"Look, Serge is not going to be here," Durant said. "He's injured for the rest of the postseason, so we've got to move past that and just keep playing as a team."
The Thunder have been an elite defensive team the past few seasons, largely by deploying a simple scheme that attacks pick-and-rolls aggressively, understanding that there's help waiting at the rim. Get beat? No problem. That's basically just a block assist for Ibaka, teeing him up to send one into the third row.
"Missing Serge is pretty tough," Reggie Jackson said. "Getting a little lazy having somebody that is an eraser back there like that, altering so many shots. ... Your body tells you a few things, just [send] them Serge's way. We have to get out of that mindset. I don't know what happened tonight, but they just got into the paint a little too easy."
Consider this: The Spurs averaged 41.3 points in paint against the Thunder in their past 12 meetings, 10 of which were OKC wins. The Spurs had 40 in the first half. The Spurs posted an absurd 126.5 points per 100 possessions, which is right on track for the 120.3 they had in the four regular-season games with Ibaka off the floor.
We overstate the importance of blocked shots, as it's often a meaningless padded stat that attempts to represent defense, but really just shows a guy is tall, has timing and can jump high. But with the way the Spurs attacked the cup fearlessly, never once glancing back at who may be coming for their shot, it's obvious that blocks matter. Not in just the raw statistical sense, but more in that human nature is to worry about your shot getting fed back to you. The Spurs were worry-free in Game 1. They didn't have to double clutch, pump fake, adjust in midair or jump pass. They just went right at the heart of the Thunder's defense and scored with a freedom they've never experienced against OKC.
"That's what we were really focusing on, knowing that Serge Ibaka was not in there," Spurs forward Boris Diaw said. "A team that is not in the paint is a lot different than a team that focus on securing the paint."
It's one game, though. The Thunder have been in a variety of holes this postseason, even experiencing a Game 1 blowout loss in their previous series. Ibaka's injury has greatly changed the complexion and feel of this hole, but the Thunder did experience some success on their own offensive end. With only a few days to prepare, Game 1 was somewhat experimental for Brooks and the Thunder, trying to discover lineups and patterns that worked. The first decision was who replaced Ibaka in the starting five, and he went with steady veteran Nick Collison. In 16 minutes, he didn't score and was a minus-7. Brooks searched, playing 11 different combinations, even going to one with Durant at center playing alongside four guards. Jeremy Lamb played for the first time this postseason outside of garbage time mop-up duty.
"We're going to mix up lineups, but we've done it all year," Brooks said. "We've played small, we've played our normal traditional lineup all year. It's nothing new to us."
Something very new, though: Playing without a sweeper to hide all those other defensive blemishes. With the cutting, surgical approach of the Spurs, and the little time the Thunder had to prepare, what happened in Game 1 was to be expected. There's time to adjust, time to rethink, time to reconsider. But Serge Ibaka isn't coming back to fix it. That much we apparently know for sure.
Royce Young's work appears regularly on Daily Thunder, part of the TrueHoop Network
Serge Ibaka's mere absence from the paint changed OKC's defensive performance for the worse, Royce Young writes.