Remember when it took a torn right meniscus for everyone to realize that Russell Westbrook was Russell Westbrook, a ultra-talented basketball player whose energy on the court shook the building and lit up his teammates (no bias here at all). A sidekick and teammate that didn’t hold KD back but actually made the Thunder the dominant force they have been in the Western Conference. In a way, the injury was the best thing that could have happened to Westbrook’s reputation and the worst thing that could have happened OKC fans.
Well, fortunately and unfortunately it’s Serge Ibaka’s turn to have his value recognized. The unheralded power forward suffered a Grade 2 strain of the plantaris muscle in his left calf in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers and was expected to miss the remainder of the postseason (today, he was upgraded to day-to-day with a possibility of returning during the series). After sweeping the Spurs in the regular season, it seemed that the Thunder had the best chance at interrupting San Antonio’s “mission” to become NBA Champions. Instead, the Thunder look helpless inside without “I-Block-a’s” defensive presence and find themselves in a hole, down 0-2 in the Western Conference Finals.
Raise your hand if you thought it was a huge mistake that the Thunder chose to retain Serge Ibaka and trade James Harden after their Finals run in 2012? I’m guessing a majority of us did. And, while the team would have been incredible had they been able to keep both players, decisions involving money had to be made. OKC chose to sign Ibaka long-term because he provided a difference skill-set that better complimented Westbrook and Durant.
Ibaka may be the “third-best player” on the team, but he’s arguably in the top 30 in the League (how many big men are as good as Serge on both ends of the floor?) and a piece of the puzzle that makes the Thunder one of the best-in-the-west. While everyone knows him as a shot blocker (he led the league in total blocks each of the past four seasons) and rebounder – many have failed to recognize his contributions on offense. Serge averaged 12.2 points in the postseason (15.1 in the regular season) and his deadly mid-range jumper forces the bigs out and creates space on the floor for Westbrook and Durant when they drive. This combination gave the Spur’s defense “fits” earlier in the season.
Ever since the Thunder trailed the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference Finals 0-2 (Deja vu?) and came back to win the series in six, OKC has been the Achilles heel of the Spurs. Oklahoma City has won 10 of the last 12 games against the Spurs and outscored them by 37 during the 2013-14 regular season. Without Serge, it’s clearly a different story. In this matchup Ibaka may be just as valuable as the Thunder’s two acknowledged superstars.
The price of Games 3 and 4 have dropped more than 50 percent in price since the morning of May 15 (night of injury). However, what stands out is a 5 percent increase in OKC Thunder tickets for Game 6. Are fans expecting Serge Ibaka back? Do they feel history will repeat itself and the Thunder will win four in a row to take the series in game six just as they had in 2012? The price change suggests that.
|NBA Western Conference Finals – OKC Thunder Tickets||Avg. Price (5/15)||Avg. Price (5/23)||Delta|
|Spurs at Thunder – Game 3||$472.54||$218.78||-53.70%|
|Spurs at Thunder – Game 4||$447.08||$215.72||-51.75%|
|Spurs at Thunder – Game 6||$525.20||$549.32||4.59%|
When there’s a missing part to the puzzle in Oklahoma City, everything falls apart. If there’s any good that is to come of Ibaka’s absence, I hope it’s the realization that Serge is both a defensive and offensive giant and a top-level NBA talent. Can we admit now that the organization may have known what they were doing when they signed Ibaka to a four-year, $49 million extension?
Image Credit: Sue Ogrocki (AP)