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.