-- OKLAHOMA CITY -- There has been a not-so-coincidental intersection at the number 9 after two games of the Western Conference finals for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It's the number Serge Ibaka wears while expunging shots in the paint and spacing the floor from midrange. It's also the total number of points the three Thunder starters not named Kevin or Russell have scored.
The absence of Ibaka has been the overwhelming storyline after the Spurs powered to two emphatic wins in San Antonio to put the Thunder in a chasmic 2-0 hole. The effortless dissection of the Thunder, highlighted by an average of 60 points in the paint from San Antonio, has affirmed Ibaka's importance on the defensive end.
But it's also been about the loss of any kind of offensive balance and trust. In Game 2, the Thunder played 13 consecutive minutes spanning the second and third quarter where Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant scored all 20 points and attempted 23 of 26 shots. Over that time, the Spurs outscored the Thunder 48-20 and blew the game wide-open.
It's no big revelation that how Westbrook and Durant go, so do the Thunder. This is a top-heavy roster that is built around two supernova stars who can own a game entirely on their own. Check out the box score from Game 2 against the Clippers where they nearly had dueling triple-doubles, combining for 63 points, 22 rebounds and 19 assists. If they don't play well, typically neither do the Thunder. And currently, they are caught in a rock-and-hard-place situation. They aren't trusting, and they are trying to do too much on their own. But on the other hand, whom exactly should they be trusting?
"I've got to do more," Durant said Saturday. "I've got to dig deeper and find out what it is and how I can help my team out a little bit more by having to do more, and I own up to everything. I own up to not playing well and own up to our team losing two in a row by that much, own up to it, and as it is, I've got to take it on the chin and learn from it and get better from it and try to put out a better game in Game 3."
Durant saying he has to do more is really a subtweet of his teammates, acknowledging that they aren't doing anything. He talked the same way in the Thunder's five-game elimination to the Grizzlies last postseason as he tried to shoulder the offensive load with Westbrook sidelined. It was Durant trying to embrace the machismo mindset that is supposed to come with being an alpha superstar. You're the best player, so you have to accept the burden of responsibility.
But it doesn't always work that way. After the season, Durant admitted to that being the wrong mentality, saying he got too wrapped up in trying to go about it all on his own. Because that kind of approach runs opposite of his basketball nature and takes him out of his comfort zone. When Durant presses, when he tries too hard, he often doesn't play well. Durant is the most destructive scorer in the world, but not in the classic "takeover" mold of guys like Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony who stop the ball to isolate for 18 seconds of a possession. Durant is the kind of guy who can drop 54 on the Warriors on 28 shots while having the ball for just 3:17 of game time. His preference is to cook you quietly, letting you gradually realize he has 31 with eight minutes left and has yet to break a sweat.
That kind of commitment to efficiency can appear to be passivity, but it's actually what makes Durant so ruthless. It's him picking the good apples and leaving the bad ones, punishing defenses for the slightest slips. Problem with that is, when the Thunder's offense sputters the way it has, primarily because of the lack of any sort of secondary production, it basically begs Durant to start chomping on rotten apples. He has to chuck and force, trying to manufacture offense by making ridiculous shots. It's asking him to stop playing like Kevin Durant.
Westbrook has no problem playing that part, but that's like laughing when a toddler does something bad. You can't encourage Westbrook to take bad shots and force offense. Otherwise you get a stretch like in Game 2, where he fired 24 shots in 29 minutes, routinely forgetting he was playing with four other people.
The Thunder's offensive structure rarely produces good shots for supporting cast members, except for those sweet midrange elbow jumpers for Ibaka. That pressure valve isn't there anymore, so the Spurs are just bottling Westbrook and Durant up, daring them to pass to one-way players. That's the choice: take a questionable shot or pass to Sefolosha. Which one is actually the right decision?
When the Thunder can integrate the supporting cast into the two-man show, they mutate into maybe the most powerful offensive team in the league. They can flash flurries of absurd athleticism and playmaking, overpowering opponents with raw talent and ability. But a lot of that hinges on having a full deck, and the Thunder don't. Ibaka has left an irreplaceable void in the defensive interior but also has completely unbalanced the Thunder's offense.
The surface-level solution is for Durant to take over, to bear that MVP cross and do more. And it makes sense with how easy he makes it look. A high screen and two dribbles into a pullup is all it takes for Durant to burn you. It seems so easy for him to just say "screw it" and go Rucker Park on everyone. It can often be infuriating to watch him remain so measured and almost actively resist scoring. We want to see Durant bring out the Slim Reaper, ignore teammates and see if he can go for 60. We glorify selfishness in basketball, especially when the perception is it came out of necessity.
Reality is, though, that's not going to beat the Spurs. Durant admitted he hasn't played well enough, but no amount of individual brilliance was going to save the Thunder in those first two games. This is a systematic takedown, with the Spurs isolating the Thunder's weaknesses and exploiting them in excruciating ways. The Thunder are unbalanced offensively, and the Spurs know it. The Thunder are soft defensively, and the Spurs know it. The Thunder have had three days off to try to solve their problems, and outside of the prayer of Ibaka actually walking through that door, there's no quick fix. The Spurs aren't 35 points better than them, but the Thunder have been exposed. They're simple, they're predictable, and they're top heavy.
Durant has vowed to do more, because that's what he's supposed to say. He's the MVP, so this is his responsibility to fix, or at least that's the status quo. But he can't pass to himself. He can't stop the parade to the paint. He can't score 125 in a game (I think). The Thunder are spinning, and Durant is saying things. As he should know from experience, that doesn't fix anything on its own.