OKLAHOMA CITY — Thunder players fondly described Serge Ibaka’s contributions to the team this season and explained how much he’d be missed.
Then, they moved on.
Ibaka, one of the NBA’s top shot blockers, hurt his left calf in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal against the Los Angeles Clippers. A day after the team learned it would likely be without its best defender for the rest of the playoffs, Oklahoma City began practicing for the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Game 1 is Monday night, and the Thunder will take a business-as-usual approach into San Antonio.
“It’s unfortunate for us and for Serge,” league MVP Kevin Durant said after practice Saturday. “He’s a guy that loves the game so much and has to sit out at the peak of the season, being in the playoffs. But it happens in this league. Nobody’s ever going to feel sorry for us.
“We’re not going to panic. We’re going to continue to stick to what we do.”
During the regular season, Ibaka had career highs with averages of 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds while leading the league in total blocks for the fourth straight season with 219. The Thunder don’t expect to duplicate Ibaka’s explosiveness or his ability to protect the rim.
“We’re going to play team defense,” guard Russell Westbrook said. “We’re not going to take the onus on ourselves to block shots and do what Serge does, because nobody can do that.”
Brooks wouldn’t say how he would fill the minutes or who would start in Ibaka’s place. He jokingly named almost every reserve as a possible replacement. Based on past patterns, rookie center Steven Adams and veteran forward Nick Collison will likely step in for Ibaka.
Adams has been exceptional recently. The 7-footer from New Zealand was especially effective in Game 6 against the Clippers, when he had 10 points and 11 rebounds in 40 minutes. He had never played more than 31 minutes in an NBA game.
“It was hard,” Adams said. “My body afterwards — I felt like an old man. Going forward, I got familiar with playing while I was fatigued. I’m familiar with it. I need to get comfortable with it.”
Adams had gained his teammates’ confidence throughout the playoffs. They say he’s ready for more responsibility.
“The last two series, he played extremely well for us,” Durant said. “Doing anything we need him to do, playing hard, physical. We’re going to need him this series to do the same thing. The coaches have been preparing him. He’s learning, and he’s getting better every day.”
Still, San Antonio has to be ready for anything. The Thunder have 10 players who have started this season.
“They are going to change their lineups,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “They have a lot of very capable players, very good players and they’re a very good team. Obviously, it’s big to lose such a part of their team, but we’re going to do what we do and show up how we have to show up and bring the energy that we have to bring.”
San Antonio’s guards, especially Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, won’t find as much resistance at the rim.
“Of course, he’s a big part of what they do because defensively he’s everywhere blocking shots, and the last few years, he’s become a big threat knocking down those 18-, 17-footers,” Ginobili said. “He’s quite a loss for them. Hopefully we use that to our advantage.”
Oklahoma City has been in similar binds. Westbrook and starters Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins each missed at least 20 games this season, and the Thunder still finished with the league’s second-best record.
Because of those experiences, Brooks said the team remains confident it can advance to the NBA Finals.
“We’ve had to overcome some injuries this past season, and we have an expectation that our locker room sets for themselves to come out and play your minutes hard, regardless of circumstances,” he said. “We definitely have enough to still win this series.”