Lack of Ibaka has Thunder scrambling to find lineups that work (going small sure didn’t)

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Thunder coach Scott Brooks had no good answer.

The absence of Serge Ibaka was everything Thunder fans should have feared — the Spurs scored 66 points in the paint (tied with the most OKC gave up all season), and San Antonio hit 25-of-29 shots at the rim after shooting just 50 percent there in for regular season meetings. The Spurs scored at will and with that handily won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals 122-105.

All game long Scott Brooks tried to find a lineup answer to the loss of Ibaka, and nothing worked.

He started the regular guys just with Nick Collison at the four — when asked why before the game Brooks said, “Why not?” — but the Spurs dared Collison to take the shots Ibaka knocks down and Collison was 0-of-3 from the floor in the game.

As expected Brooks tried to go small. Down 11 just 6:37 into the game Brooks goes small with a lineup that had Kevin Durant at the four and Kendrick Perkins at the five (Perkins was replaced by Steven Adams a couple minutes in) and that group had some short-term success closing out the quarter on a 20-12 run.

But over the course of the game the multiple small-ball lineups that had Durant at the four were -9 and couldn’t stop the Spurs from scoring.

Brooks even went with an ultra-small lineup with Durant at the five for seven minutes (Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Durant) and that group put up 16 on 50 percent shooting, scoring points in 7 minutes, knocking down three from beyond the arc. And that group was -1 as it could not slow the Spurs offense in the least.

So what does Brooks do now?

Well, for one play Nick Collison and Steven Adams together — when Ibaka went down in Game 6 against the Clippers he leaned on that frontline pair for 17 minutes together and they were +16. That combination didn’t play one minute together in Game 1 against the Spurs.

To play those two, especially if Thabo Sefolosha is also on the court, is to ask Durant and Westbrook to completely carry the offense while getting extra attention from the Spurs — but they are going to have to do that this series anyway. Brooks can slide Reggie Jackson or Caron Butler in at the other guard slot to provide a little more offense and see if that works. But the fact is KD and Westbrook are gong to have to put up monster numbers this series for the Thunder to have a real chance.

One other lineup note: The starting five “big” lineup the Thunder used got them back in the game to start the second half — it was ultimately +4 in that stretch. Yes, that group got blitzed to start the game but in the second half they settled down and did protect the paint better.

The picture Game 1 leaves us with is that going big seems to work better for OKC. That puts a lot of pressure on Durant and Westbrook, but as noted they already had that pressure on them. It’s not new.

Serge Ibaka is not walking through that door for the Thunder. Brooks needs to trust the guys he’s got. It’s go big or go home.

Data via NBA.com.

Watch Pacers fan boo Paul George during introductions (video)

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Paul George – who told the Pacers he’d leave in free agency, prompting them to trade him to the Thunder – expected boos in his return to Indiana.

Pacers fans delivered.

They’ve also booed him every time he has touched the ball, which will certainly persist.

John Wall returns for Wizards-Grizzlies

AP Photo/Nick Wass
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Point guard John Wall was in the Washington Wizards’ lineup Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies after missing nine games with a sore left knee.

Coach Scott Brooks said Wall would play in the mid-20-minute range, perhaps a bit more.

The Wizards (14-13), currently in first place in the Southeast Division, went 4-5 in Wall’s absence.

“He such a force offensively,” Brooks said of Wall. “He’s a two-way player and he’s one of the few guys in the league that can find open 3-point shooters going 100 miles an hour in transition.”

Wall, 27, is averaging 20.3 points and 9.2 assists per game.

Pacers president Kevin Pritchard likes tweets critical of Paul George trade

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Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard was widely panned – including by me – for trading Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

Oops.

Oladipo and Sabonis are killing it while George has underwhelmed.

Upon George’s return to Indiana, Pritchard took the opportunity to gloat. The Pacers general manager recently liked these tweets (hat tip: Matt Ellentuck of SB Nation):

This is petty – and I love it. Pritchard earned the victory lap.

Report: Rival executives still expect Paul George to leave Thunder for Lakers

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Paul George has been pretty open about his plans.

He told plenty of people – including the Pacers – he planned to leave for the Lakers in the summer of 2018. Even after the Thunder traded for him, George spoke of the lure of playing for his hometown team.

Of course, George also left the door open to re-signing with Oklahoma City. He proclaimed he’d be dumb to leave if the Thunder reached the conference finals or upset the Warriors.

So far, Oklahoma City (12-14) doesn’t even look like a playoff lock, let alone a team capable of knocking off Golden State or reaching the conference finals. So, cue the inevitable speculation.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Rival execs still expect Paul to head for the Lakers in free agency

Do these executives have inside information into George’s thinking, or are they just speculating based on already-available information? Some executives are incentivized to drum up the Lakers threat, because they want to trade for George themselves now. If these executives insist George will leave for Los Angeles regardless, they might pry him from Oklahoma City for less.

There’s also a theory George is hyping his desire to sign with the Lakers so a team would have to trade less for him. That got him to the Thunder for what looked like a meager return (but hasn’t been). It might get him to a more favorable situation before the trade deadline without hampering his next team long-term. Of course, this theory isn’t mutually exclusive with George actually signing in Los Angeles. It could just get him better options to choose from this summer.

Surely, the Thunder are trying to parse all this noise. If their season doesn’t turn around, they should explore flipping George rather than risk losing him for nothing next summer. But they should also be wary that he’ll bolt for Los Angeles at first opportunity just because rival executives predict it.