On Friday night, Serge Ibaka sat out a 113-99 Thunder victory over Minnesota with knee soreness and was considered day-to-day.
The day-to-day diagnosis has turned into Ibaka undergoing surgery and being out four to six weeks. That means a team that has given up at least one hundred points in nine of its last ten games, could be without its best interior defender for the rest of the regular season.
Giving up one hundred points wouldn’t be that bad for the Thunder considering they are tops in the league in pace since the All-Star Break averaging over 101 possessions per game.
But, they’re giving up nearly 105.6 points per game in that time frame, good for 28th in the league.
Scott Brooks’ defensive minded squad has gone from tenth in defensive rating before the All-Star Break to 24th after the week off.
The defense has fallen apart since a three-team trade brought in four offensive minded players. And now, there’s no Serge Ibaka to help out underneath.
Without a doubt, Ibaka has been OKC’s best interior defender. Ibaka leads the NBA in blocked shots and players shoot 46.1 percent against him in the restricted area. That’s sixth in the league for players that have faced at least 50 shots.
Opponents shoot 51 percent when guarded by Steven Adams in the restricted area. The Kiwi is the only other big man on the roster under 60 percent.
Adams is the closest thing to a rim protector that Oklahoma City has left in a league where rim protection is essential.
Here’s the difference between having Steven Adams and having Serge Ibaka as your rim protector:
Those are two different plays, but Ibaka is quicker to react. That is why he is able to get the block and Chandler Parsons is able to get by Adams.
With Ibaka out, OKC is most likely going to start Adams and Kanter at the four and five the rest of the season. Opponents have shot a slightly worse 43.5 percent when Adams and Kanter have been on the court together compared to 44.3 percent when Ibaka is on the court with Adams.
But, the Kanter and Ibaka duo has outscored opponents by six points when on the court together compared the Bruise Brothers outscoring opponents by three points when sharing the court.
And the blocked shots go down when Ibaka isn’t there. Ibaka and Kanter have blocked 30 shots on the court together compared to just six when Kanter shares the court with Adams.
Ibaka can cover for Kanter getting beat on a pick and roll better than Adams can. That’s where the Thunder defense will hurt without its sixth year man from the Congo.
Ibaka isn’t just better than Adams or Kanter defensively he’s significantly better. No other Thunder big man can replace his defense.
Kanter has been awful at defense all four of his years in the league. Opponents are shooting almost 63 percent against him in the restricted area this season since he came to Oklahoma City.
Nick Collison is a smart basketball player, but he doesn’t have the athleticism to come close to matching what Ibaka does.
Mitch McGary is still a rookie and he has struggled on the defensive end this season. He has shown that he can rebound, but McGary is still struggling on pick and rolls and he’s offering little resistance to shooters at the basket.
Steven Adams is the next best interior option on defense after Ibaka, but Adams is still young. And there is still a significant drop off from Ibaka to Adams on the defensive end.
The one place that the Ibaka-less big man lineups improve significantly is rebounding.
When sharing the court together, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams have combined to grab nearly one in five boards and the Mitch McGary-Enes Kanter duo have combined to grab almost one in four rebounds.
When Ibaka is on the court with Kanter, rebounding rate drops to a little more than one out of every twenty.
This is what the Thunder will have to exploit without its rim protector.
The Thunder is clinging to the eight seed in the tough Western Conference right now, despite its defense falling off a cliff the past month. It’s a team that has been facing injury after injury all season long.
Durant returning will help Oklahoma City in its race for the playoffs, and the Thunder have a good chance to grab the eight seed if it continues dominating on the glass.
But, its path to playoff just got a little tougher without Serge Ibaka there to defend the basket.
You can hear Josh Kopelman, known as the Latvian Missile, occasionally on the Sports Animal where he produces daily from noon-4 p.m. Follow him on Twitter here.