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Can Spurs score at the rim against Thunder with no Serge Ibaka?

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

Ibaka has been the key to taking away the Spurs at the rim. (USATSI)
Serge Ibaka was the key to taking away the Spurs at the rim. (USATSI)

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With the news that Serge Ibaka will miss the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury, the defensive landscape of the Oklahoma City Thunder will vastly change.

The San Antonio Spurs are probably the best team in the NBA at getting quality shots up and down the roster. The Gregg Popovich system of offensive execution is nearly perfect. Dribble penetration, passing, and unselfish decisions keep the ball moving until a great shot is manufactured against a scrambling defense. It's nothing new to basketball, but so few teams do it as consistently as the Spurs.

They've been top 4 in the NBA in field goal percentage for four straight seasons, and have been the second best team or better for three straight seasons. At lot of that has to do with taking quality 3-point shots and getting good attempts at the rim. The Spurs were third in the NBA in field goal percentage in the restricted area making 64.8 percent of their attempts. That was a big part of their 48.6 percent field goal percentage overall, which was second best in the NBA.

However, against the Oklahoma City Thunder in four games this season, we saw that field goal percentage drop, and a primary reason for that was how the Thunder defended the Spurs at the rim. The passing was still relatively the same. The Spurs assisted on 62.0 percent of their baskets against the entire league, and it dipped down to 58.4 percent against the Thunder.But the reason the Spurs' field goal percentage dropped to 44.2 percent is because they couldn't score nearly as effectively in the restricted area.

The Thunder's athleticism and help positioning really took away a lot of the Spurs' effectiveness at converting on arguably the most efficient field goal attempt in basketball -- the shot in the restricted area. San Antonio converted just 50.4 percent of their shots inside, which is a drop-off of 14.4 percent. Check out their shot charts against the entire NBA and the Thunder:

The Spurs are actually taking more shots in the restricted area and performing much worse, which is a huge concern for them. Against the entire NBA, the Spurs had 10.3 percent of their shot attempts in the restricted area blocked. Against the Thunder, that percentage went up to 18.4 percent.

Serge Ibaka was the main reason for this increase in shots turned away at the rim. He was the second leading shot blocker in the NBA in terms of blocks per game with 2.7, and led the NBA in total blocks with 219. Against the Spurs, he increased his blocks per game average to 4.0 and had 15 blocks in the restricted area of the 22 by the Spurs. But without Ibaka on the floor in this series, the Thunder will need to rely on Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, and Steven Adams to keep the restricted area as an uncomfortable place for the Spurs.

The Thunder gave up 93.0 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the floor against the Spurs this season. With Collison or Adams in the game, the Thunder gave up 110.2 and 106.0 points per 100 possessions, respectively. However, Perkins on the floor kept up the defensive impact the Thunder had by giving up an amazing 89.9 points per 100 possessions.

The problem with that bit of encouraging news is almost every lineup with Perkins on the floor included Ibaka, and the two works really well together to cut off the interior. Perkins would need Collison to utilize his positioning instead of hoping for backside rim protection. If they paired Adams and Collison together or Adams and Perkins, it could work against the frontcourt of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, but it wouldn't work well against the Spurs throwing Boris Diaw on the floor with them. The Adams-Perkins frontcourt would likely be too slow.

Adams is an excellent shot blocker, but he's foul prone. Throwing Durant at the 4 gives you the potential for rim protection, thanks to his wingspan. But it also puts him in the situation where he could rack up fouls inside or possibly get beaten up a little too much with physical play, which would take away energy for the offensive end of the floor.

Without Ibaka in the lineup, the Thunder still did a great job of protecting the rim by giving up a success rate of 53.3 percent, but that was a small portion of minutes over the four games and only 30 attempts.

Rim protection can come in many forms in the NBA. Some of it is shot blocking and some of it is the threat of a shot blocker. For the Thunder, they'll have to adjust to having great help positioning at all times to keep the Spurs from feasting inside around the rim. If they can do that, they'll have a shot of keeping this prolific Spurs' offense away from more advantageous shots.

Somebody has to step up though and position themselves at the entry point of the restricted area.

 
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