The Oklahoma City Thunder took another step into their future without Russell Westbrook on Monday night, narrowly missing out on a sweep of the Houston Rockets in the waning seconds of game four.
For much of the contest, the burden on Kevin Durant was significant as he attempted to dribble around, pass through and shoot over double or triple teams. All of Houston’s efforts weren’t enough to stop him though as Durant still blew up for 38 points, eight rebounds and six assists. But despite having honed his point guard-like handles and refined his shot selection, Durant isn’t going to be enough to carry the Thunder beyond the Western Conference semifinals.
No one out there understands this better than LeBron James. The reason the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t shared his championship glee over the last year is because they asked him to do what OKC has to ask Durant to do now, single handedly guide them to a championship. But in the end, basketball is a team game, and even the most powerful of superstars has a dependable cohort to help him along the way.
For the Thunder to move on without Westbrook, they have to identify a new No.2 and that man is going to need to be Serge Ibaka. They can get valuable contributions from Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson as they did last night, but ultimately as Durant is drawn away from the basket to take on more of the ball handling and perimeter shooting burden, Ibaka now has to dominate the paint alone.
This season, Durant improved his game averaging career highs in rebounds (8 per game) and blocked shots (1.3). While his assist numbers will remain at their all time high this postseason in his adjusted role without Westbrook, Durant is going to need help in the other areas. Ibaka is one of the best at guarding the rim, but the team is going to need more from him offensively than the 8 point, 5 rebound performance he put together last night.
In recent seasons, Ibaka has polished his mid range game, a shot which Scott Brooks now has to develop plays to proliferate it for the player to provide second scorer type points in every game. As Durant figures out how to drive and kick out passes, guys like Martin and Fisher will be ready to fire threes, but developing a pick and roll/pop option with Ibaka could prove equally beneficial and ease some of the pressure being placed on the team’s superstar.
This season, Ibaka took a career high number of shots from 10-23 feet and shot around 53% doing so. If he can replicate those numbers by finding open shots in the mid range, the team can defer to someone other than Durant down the stretch for a basket and has a viable threat to prevent triple teams in some cases.
Naturally, Ibaka knew his game four performance was weak and as his last second put back attempt fell short, the discomfort and disgust on his face was tangible and gut wrenching for OKC fans. He knows he has to do better and now it’s up to Brooks and Durant to help him figure out how. Otherwise, the Thunder really are in as much trouble as everyone thinks because they’ll only go as far as one man can take them.