Daily NBA Fix 5-20-14: The Thunder Have To Figure It Out, Fast

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Welcome to the Daily NBA Fix for Tuesday, May 20, the morning after the San Antonio Spurs exploited the donut hole in the middle of the Oklahoma City Thunder defense.

It was obvious how much the Thunder missed Serge Ibaka in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Monday night. The Spurs got whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it at the rim, something they did not do in four regular-season losses to the Thunder.

San Antonio scored 66 points in the paint and Kevin Durant spent a lot of his night trying to guard Tim Duncan, which is—to put it politely—not a matchup that favors Oklahoma City in any way.

The Spurs shot 57.5 percent for the game and scored 122 points in a 122-105 win.

By contrast, in four regular-season losses to Oklahoma City with Ibaka playing his usual role of rim protector, San Antonio never scored more than 105 points or shot better than 53 percent.

Additionally, a team that shot 67 percent at the rim on the season was held to just 50 percent in close when the Spurs played the Thunder.

So, yes, it would be fair to refer to Ibaka’s absence as the giant gaping hole in the middle of the Oklahoma City defense that San Antonio exploited at will.

The Thunder’s starting lineup is a weird one in that the roles are so clearly delineated. Durant and Russell Westbrook fuel the offense, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha key on defense and Ibaka bridges the gap.

Without that bridge on Monday, the Thunder fell into that gap and couldn’t climb their way out. Duncan looked like Tim Duncan circa 1999, scoring 27 points in just 29 minutes.

It didn’t help the Thunder that, in his first-ever appearance in a conference finals game, Caron Butler morphed back into the guy who played two-thirds of the season sleepwalking in Milwaukee as opposed to a key contributor on a contender. Butler was 2-for-6—actually an improvement on his 30.7 percent shooting in these playoffs—in 25 minutes of basketball mostly devoid of value to the Thunder.

If there’s something that might wind up being the downfall of Thunder coach Scott Brooks in this series, it is his loyalty to museum pieces such as Butler and Derek Fisher, although Fisher did score 16 points by hitting 4-of-6 from long range, to be fair.

But Brooks continues to start Perkins and Sefolosha over younger, more athletically skilled players and in a series where your best defender is on the sidelines with a torn calf muscle, one might want to at least consider the notion of trying to get more athletic on that end of the floor.

Rookie Steven Adams lacks experience, but he also blocked 1.7 shots per 36 minutes this year. That’s not Ibaka’s 3.0 mark in the same period of time, but it’s far superior to Perkins’ 1.0 figure.

It’s also worth at least pointing out that if you’re not going to have a dominant defender in the middle of your defense, protecting the rim, you might want to reconsider having 40 percent of your starting lineup that averages 9.7 points per game … combined.

Given that Westbrook is more than capable of defending either guard spot, maybe injecting Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup could give the Thunder at least a fighting chance of keeping pace with the Spurs, since it’s not likely OKC’s defense will improve significantly in the middle without Ibaka.

This one has the look of a quick series, at least at first glance.

The Daily NBA Fix will focus on the happenings around the Association, along with a look at the daily lines for those who want to drop a buck or two on a wager. Here’s some highlights from Monday’s action:

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