Coaches and athletes say it all the time: Injuries are part of the game.
That stark reality came crashing down Friday on the Oklahoma City Thunder when they learned that Serge Ibaka, their dynamic power forward, likely will miss the rest of the postseason with a calf injury he sustained Thursday night in OKC's series-clinching win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Obviously, Ibaka's injury changes everything in the Thunder's series with the Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
Game 1 is at 8 p.m. Monday at the AT&T Center.
While the Silver and Black still must contend with MVP forward Kevin Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook and Spurs-killer Reggie Jackson, their challenge under the basket won't be nearly as daunting with Ibaka sidelined.
Thunder big men Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams will be called on pick up the slack, but none of them can affect a game like 6-foot-10 Ibaka can.
Ibaka's injury not only tips what was expected to be a close series the Spurs' way, in all likelihood it clears a path to the championship they let slip away last year.
I've thought all season that the Spurs' biggest roadblock in their drive for five was OKC, not the Miami Heat, who beat the Silver and Black in last year's gut-wrenching Finals.
Is OKC the Spurs' kryptonite?
The Thunder have had the Spurs' number since stunning them in the conference finals two years ago, when they stormed back from a 2-0 deficit with four consecutive victories.
Basketball is a game of matchups, and OKC has been a bad one for the Spurs. I heard one national pundit say Friday that the Thunder are the Spurs' kryptonite. The numbers bear that out. OKC has won 10 of the last 12 games between the teams, and went 4-0 against the Spurs this season.
My thinking throughout the season has been that if the Spurs can get past OKC, they'll win their fifth NBA title in franchise history.
Miami almost certainly is going to win the East, but the Heat aren't as good as they were last year. The Spurs, on the other hand, are better and, more importantly, driven to atone for their monumental collapse in Game 6 of last year's Finals.
One more time now: Up 3-2 in the series, the Spurs led Game 6 by five points with 28 seconds left, but Miami went on to win in overtime to force a seventh game. The Heat won their second consecutive championship two nights later, leaving the Spurs to ponder what might have been if they had made just one more free throw or gotten one more rebound.
The Spurs have an injury problem of their own in point guard Tony Parker's strained left hamstring. But at least for now, they don't face the challenge of Parker being sidelined for the series against OKC.
An MRI on Thursday revealed that Parker has a Grade 1 strain, the least severe level of the injury, in his left hamstring. Parker's status is listed as day-to-day. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Friday that he'll have a better idea of Parker's availability when the injury is reassessed Saturday.
The Spurs will return to practice Saturday after taking off Thursday and Friday, following their series-clinching win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals Wednesday night. Parker left the game early in the second quarter after feeling tightness in his hamstring and did not return. He went scoreless and had one rebound in 10 minutes.
Popovich haunted by Ibaka's big Game 4 in 2012 West finals
OKC's defensive anchor and third-leading scorer, Ibaka has given the Spurs all kinds of problems since emerging as a force in the conference finals two years ago. Ibaka was unstoppable in Game 4, nailing 11 of 11 shots in the Thunder's 109-103 win.
We are obviously disappointed for Serge, as he is a tremendous competitor, and we know how badly he wants to be on the court with his teammates, OKC general manager Sam Presti said in a statement released by the franchise. At this point it is important that our team directs its concentration and energy towards preparation and execution for our upcoming series.
As with all teams, our group has confronted different challenges. It is our collective experience that we will call on to ensure that we play to our capabilities.
Popovich recalled Ibaka's memorable game against the Spurs in the conference finals earlier Friday when he met with the media at the team's practice facility.
We still remember 11 for 11, Popovich said. Every time I see Ibaka or hear the name, 11 for 11 goes through my mind.
Ibaka, 6-foot-10, averaged 12.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 13 playoff games. He averaged career-highs with 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game during the regular season, and led the NBA in blocked shots for the fourth consecutive year with 219.
Even without Ibaka, the Thunder are a highly talented team. They play with an edge and know how to win playoff games. Coach Scott Brooks will have OKC ready to go Monday night.
The Thunder do a good job, Popovich said. They're a heck of a team. Talented, athletic, deep, well coached. They've got the whole deal, so it's a big challenge for us.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, they won't have the whole deal as long as Ibaka is on the sideline.
Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Western Conference finals
Game 1: Thunder at Spurs, Monday, 8 p.m.
Game 2: Thunder at Spurs, Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Game 3: Spurs at Thunder, Sunday, May 25,7:30 p.m.
Game 4: Spurs at Thunder, Tuesday, May 27,8p.m.
Game 5, if necessary: Thunder at Spurs, Thursday, May 29, 8 p.m.
Game 6, if necessary: Spurs at Thunder, Saturday, May 31, 7:30 p.m.
Game 7, if necessary: Thunder at Spurs, Monday, June 2, 8 p.m.