Much has been made of the Oklahoma City defensive star's absence in the first two games of the Western Conference finals series against the San Antonio Spurs. The 6-foot-10 power forward strained his left calf in the previous playoff series, and the Thunder said they expected him to be out for the playoffs. The team changed course Friday and declared him day-to-day. He worked out Saturday, but he didn't practice before addressing the media for the first time since his outlook changed.
With Ibaka, the league's leading shot blocker, the Thunder were one of the best defensive teams the NBA. Without him, the Spurs shot at least 50 per cent in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals and won them by a combined 52 points. As he stood for the five-minute session wearing a black compression sock over the calf, he deflected claims that he could be a saviour heading into Game 3 on Sunday.
"I've been hearing a lot of people saying my team lost two games because I was out," he said. "That's not true. I believe in my guys. I believe in my teammates. They can be better with me or without me. It's no excuse because Serge Ibaka was not there. Just San Antonio, the first two games, they played better basketball."
Ibaka said he sometimes screamed at his television set when he watched scenarios in which he could have made plays during the losses. He is not sure if he will play in Game 3 — he said it is up to doctors, and much will depend on how he feels in the morning. For now, he will depend largely on rest, ice and luck.
His presence is needed, even if he is less than fully healthy. Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Perry Jones have struggled against the Spurs' big men. Kevin Durant, normally a small forward, has played some power forward in the series because of Ibaka's absence, and his relative lack of physical strength and unfamiliarity with playing post defence has been exploited.
The Spurs prepared all along as though he would return.
"It gives them another hell of a player," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, "but we are who we are and we've got to be who we are. We can't change what we do."
Even if Ibaka returns, it will not fully solve Oklahoma City's problems defending the perimeter. San Antonio has made 18 of 40 3-pointers in the series and guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are slashing into the paint with stunning frequency, often scoring or finding their teammates for open shots.
The Thunder say it starts with basics.
"It's just an individual effort," Perkins said. "Got to put it in your mind that you want to stop the guy in front of you, and that's it. Backside got to be ready. But the thing is when they penetrate, that's what opens those threes. We'll do a better job of keeping the ball in front of us, but we've just got to be individual and you've got to want the match up."
To be fair, San Antonio shares the ball like no one else. The Spurs led the league with 25.4 assists per game during the regular season. That average is up to 27.5 against Oklahoma City. Parker and Ginobili generate many of the assists, but many others come from simple ball movement.
"We don't have a Durant," Ginobili said. "We don't have a Kobe (Bryant) or LeBron (James) that can go one against one and finish every single time. We need to pass the ball to find open teammates, and that's what we do, and that's what we've been doing. We all feel proud about it. We know when we have 25 assists or 30, we are much better and we try to do that every time."
Because the Spurs generally have five capable scorers on the floor at a time, it forces opponents to have a greater attention to detail than usual.
"They've got threats," Durant said. "Everybody on their team is a threat because of their offence. They move the ball. They've got 3-point shooters. You take away 3-point shooters, they get the role guys and they get the paint points. You take away that and they start hitting the threes. So we have to do both. We have to be able to close the paint up and get out to shooters. Easier said than done, but we can do it."
The Spurs are off to a good start, but experience tells them they won't have as easy a time in Oklahoma City. And in 2012, Oklahoma City fell behind San Antonio 2-0 in the Western Conference finals before winning the series 4-2.
"We've got to know that in their arena it's going to be different," Ginobili said. "They're going to be way more aggressive, they're going to be pushed by their fans. We just won two games. They are going to make more shots, they are going to attack harder, they are going to go to the free-throw line more.So, there are a lot of things that they can do much better and we're not going to make as many shots."
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.