When questioned yesterday about when Serge Ibaka had sustained his latest knee injury, Scott Brooks replied, "Recently." Pressed about whether it had come from a single play or over the course of the last few weeks, Brooks said, "I haven't asked him."
You can't blame Brooks for being curt. The Thunder have had plenty on their plate already with Kevin Durant sidelined over the last month. Now, Ibaka will be out for "a few weeks," according to ESPN's Chris Broussard, after electing to undergo a procedure for lingering soreness in his knee. You can just add this to the long list of injuries and bad breaks for the Thunder this season.
After dropping to the Dallas Mavericks by a 119-115 margin last night, the Thunder sit only a half-game up on the New Orleans Pelicans for the 8th seed in the West. Durant should be back soon-ish, but the margin for error is slim these days. The Thunder hold the upper hand over the Pelicans for now, but Anthony Davis (coming off a 36-point, 14-rebound, 7-assist, 9-block performance against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday) remains omnipresent.
Losing Ibaka now isn't quite the momentum killer that losing Durant or Russell Westbrook was, but with Westbrook already shouldering so much of the workload in Durant's absence, the Thunder aren't well-equipped to handle another injury to a core player. Ibaka is this team's defensive cornerstone, the final line of defense in the paint that shuns all, and it remains to be seen that the team can make do on that end without him.
That the Thunder allowed 119 points to the Mavericks might seem reason for concern, but it wasn't as bad as the point total makes it seem. As the starting frontcourt, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams combined for 21 rebounds, with another 13 boards from Mitch McGary off the bench (in just 17 minutes!). For the game, the Thunder cleanly worked the Mavs for a 59-37 advantage on the glass.
The game was played with such a fast pace overall that stat totals in the box score were inflated. The Mavericks only mustered 52.9% shooting at the rim, a mark appreciably below their 57.6% conversion rate for the season.
But it won't be sunshine and daisies going forward – the pieces here aren't good enough for that. Adams stepped in for Ibaka in the starting lineup, and he's a pretty good defender, but nowhere near the presence Ibaka was. The second-year big man ranks 32nd among centers in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and Seth Partnow's SportVU-based rim protection metrics only rank Adams as slightly above average for a center.
That matters because Kanter is really the weak link here. His play on offense and the boards has been a revelation, but part of the reason for his thriving play is because Ibaka could carry his own notoriously poor defense.
With Ibaka out, Kanter pushes the more mobile Adams down to defending opposing power forwards, but Adams isn't familiar with Ibaka's role of defending stretch 4s as well as pulling off weak-side recoveries to cover for Kanter. Those aren't easy shoes to step into – look at the expanse of hardwood he has to cover here:
It will be teams with rangy big men that'll really test the Kanter-Adams outfit. Dirk Nowitzki dropped 22 points with four threes against Adams last night, incredibly without a single field goal attempt at the rim. With Adams constantly on guard for enemy looks at the rim, Nowitzki could feast on jumpers and space the floor.
Mitch McGary appears to have to have supplanted Nick Collison (11 minutes) as the third big man in Brooks' Ibaka-less rotation, but while he's strong as a bull and a tireless worker, making the defensive reads of a big man in the NBA is something that still comes and goes for him, much like any other rookie. Against the Mavericks, he played 17 minutes to Kanter's 37 and Adams' 30 (before fouling out).
Until Ibaka returns, the Thunder will try to get by with what's left of their big man corps. Though torched by Nowitzki in their last time out, they won the points in the paint battle by a 52-36 margin – one positive you could pluck away from a loss to an offense traditionally based around the pick-and-roll.
Losing a star again is painful with the playoff stakes being what they are for the Thunder, but things aren't gloom and doom. They're 2-1 in their last three games without Ibaka, including wins over the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Thunder have likely grown weary of contending with injury after injury after injury, but gritting their teeth and getting through it has become simple business at this point. Scott Brooks might be terse these days, but it's all he can do to bite down and make adjustments.