Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City’s leading rebounder and one of the best shot blockers in the NBA, will miss the rest of the playoffs with a calf strain. (Reuters)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Last postseason for the Thunder, it was Reggie Jackson, transforming from seldom-used backup point guard to capable starter. With Russell Westbrook out, Jackson helped close out one series and keep another one competitive.
This postseason, it’ll have to be somebody else. And Scott Brooks may have to get creative.
The potentially crippling news came down Friday afternoon. Serge Ibaka will miss the remainder of the postseason with a Grade 2 calf strain. The Thunder’s leading rebounder and arguably the league’s best shot-blocker will take his irreplaceable skill set to the sideline in a suit.
It’s a massive blow for OKC, coming right as preparations were getting underway for another conference finals showdown with the red-hot San Antonio Spurs.
But the series is still two days away, giving Brooks a 48-hour window to implement some adjustments and tweaks. And it starts with who he starts.
The most obvious choice would seem to be Nick Collison. When Ibaka went out in the third quarter of Thursday night’s clincher over the Clippers, Collison entered and played 16 second-half minutes. He nailed a crucial three, had two nifty assists and contributed some stiff post defense.
At 33, Collison’s best days are behind him. But he remains a steadying on-court force, mistake-free and team-oriented. No matter his role, Collison’s game doesn’t change. But his minutes are about to.
And so are Steven Adams’. Like Collison, the rookie got a taste of life without Ibaka on Thursday night. He played a career-high 40 minutes, including the final 21, and had a double-double.
Sans Ibaka, Brooks went with a unique lineup for much of the second half — Collison, Adams, Reggie Jackson, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — and it outscored the Clippers 42-24. They had only played six minutes together during the regular season. But because of the success against L.A., it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Brooks test it out early against San Antonio.
“Our roster’s really good,” Collison said. “It’s really deep. We’ve got a lot of bigs we can throw out there. We’ve got a unique roster. A lot of teams don’t have that many bigs we can throw at their guys.”
And then there’s the intriguing idea of reinserting Perry Jones into the rotation. He has only been given 15 playoff minutes, all mop-up duty. But for brief stretches in the regular season, Jones received extended run and showed flashes. And he even started in Ibaka’s place during the only game he missed.
As a 6-foot-11 guard/forward hybrid, Jones would allow the Thunder to “go small,” while staying big. Described by Brooks as a “utility defender,” Jones can guard multiple positions and free up Durant to slide to the power forward on offense, creating tough cross-matches for the Spurs.
Because of its youth, athleticism and length, the Thunder has had San Antonio’s number the past few seasons. The loss of Ibaka diminishes that. But a reinsertion of Jones or even Jeremy Lamb into the mix, creating some surprising and unique lineups, could help counteract that.
“The coaching staff has done an excellent job this season developing the roster and creating a lot of different options,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “… But not everybody can play. What I expect is that the coaches take a thorough look at everything and put together a gameplan that they feel like optimizes the group in this particular series.”
Ibaka’s injury creates some massive and unavoidable challenges for the Thunder. But if Brooks is willing to make some unique adjustments, he could create present some intriguing challenges for the Spurs.