The Oklahoma City Thunder’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers in a second-round playoffs series came with a huge price tag, as starting power forward and integral piece for his team, Serge Ibaka was lost for the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury.
According to reports, Ibaka reportedly suffered a Grade 2 strain of the plantaris in his calf after he was tangled up in the aftermath of a play that looked harmless at first glance. Ibaka, known as a dominant defender and shot blocker, established career-highs this season in points (15.1) and rebounds (8.8) and he helped the Thunder offset the loss of star point guard Russell Westbrook, helping the team finish second in the Western Conference. The Thunder’s title chances were derailed last season when Westbrook sustained a postseason knee injury. Will Oklahoma City’s hopes for a Finals appearance be shattered again with the loss of Ibaka? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.
Green: Even with Ibaka playing, I predicted that the San Antonio Spurs would return to the Finals, so his absence definitely has an effect. Kevin Durant and Westbrook are excellent scorers and Ibaka fits their offensive agenda like a glove. The 6-foot, 10-inch big man doesn’t gripe about how many touches he gets, but he can step out and hit perimeter shots while still playing some of the best lockdown low post defense in the NBA. He’s a superb shot-blocker and the muscle behind the finesse of Durant and Westbrook. The Spurs have Tim Duncan still playing strong and an attacking cast that loves to drive to the rim. If you subtract Ibaka you can delete the Thunder from championship contention this year.
Riley: Ibaka's injury definitely makes the task tougher, but Durant was the regular season MVP and Westbrook might be the postseason MVP. Those two collaborate for the most lethal one-two punch in the Association and I actually think they can get past the Spurs without their preferred big man. Oklahoma City is a deep unit, filled with serviceable role players who can get the job done while Durant and Westbrook hoist shots. The Thunder have controlled the Spurs over the last few seasons and should be able to do it again with their two All-Stars once again finding their groove together. Winning it all without Ibaka could pose a challenge, but you never know what may happen to either Indiana or Miami as they fight it out to represent the East.
Green: San Antonio is once again operating at top gear, and I wouldn’t be so quick to simply dismiss them. The problem for the Spurs is that they simply have no one who can even slow Westbrook or Durant, but their counterparts in Tony Parker and Khawi Leonard aren’t too shabby in the scoring department themselves. Even if OKC happened to get past the Spurs, they're not beating Miami (my pick to return to the Finals from the East) with a shorthanded roster. Talent normally wins out in the postseason, and even though the Thunder still pack a punch with their two juggernaut scorers, the remaining three teams in the NBA’s final four all possess deeper rosters at this stage in the season. It’s going to be a grind.
Riley: The Thunder’s roster might not be as deep as their final four brethren, but they are still the most explosive. The Thunder just find guys who know how to play. Ibaka’s absence will open up minutes for talented defensive big Steven Adams, who has been pretty impressive in limited time this postseason and has virtually supplanted Kendrick Perkins as the team's most effective center. He should be smiling from ear to ear as this opportunity arises. Oklahoma will miss the spacing that Ibaka gives them—he is able to spread the floor and hit deep jumpshots—but his defensive presence can and will be somewhat replaced by Adams and Perkins. As long as Westbrook and Durant remain healthy, the Thunder's chances remain strong.
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