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Is Serge Ibaka Ready for Prime Time?
Posted By Susan Bible On May 15, 2012 @ 9:00 pm In All,Main Page,NBA | No Comments
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s four-game sweep over the reigning NBA champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs demonstrated the art of team play. Instead of one player dominating the series, it seemed each game had its own set of heroes. From clutch performance to superb team defense – and plenty of drama in between – the Thunder showed new-found consistency and real growth from last season’s postseason run.
Certain truths were revealed: Derek Fisher proved why his pickup was a smart move. James Harden proved why he was named the league’s best Sixth Man. The team showed that they know how to close out games. Even head coach Scott Brooks showed better in-game decision-making.
The Thunder’s three-pronged offensive weaponry in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden had individual distinctive shining moments. And, finally, it appears the Thunder can effectively protect the rim with their defensive pairing of intimidating post defender Kendrick Perkins and athletic freak Serge Ibaka.
“Perk is a great big guy to play with,” Ibaka recently said. “He helps me a lot, and I learn a lot from him. I enjoy playing with him.”
“Perk and Serge have a great chemistry,” Durant said. “Serge doesn’t get offended; you know, usually guys get offended when you tell them to switch off with somebody, but Serge really trusts Perk.”
Ibaka’s defense was so good in the regular season that he nearly won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award this season. New York Knicks’ Tyson Chandler nabbed the honors with 45 first-place votes, 25 second-place votes and 11 third-place votes. Ibaka got 41 first-place votes, 24 second-place votes and 17 third-place votes.
With the exception of blocked shots, Ibaka’s numbers remained fairly steady over the past two seasons. He led the league this season in blocks per game (3.7) – an increase from 2.4 blocks per game in 2010-11 – and it wasn’t even close. JaVale McGee was second in the league with 2.2 blocks per game. In fact, Ibaka blocked 106 shots more than any other player despite averaging just 27.2 minutes. He logged double-digit blocks in three games this season, and recorded one triple-double.
Watch Ibaka and you can plainly see the defensive improvements he’s made this year. His blocks can set or change tones in games and sometimes venture into game-altering territory; opponents tend to adjust shots or spots once Ibaka’s impact is realized. He doesn’t always fall for the pump fake anymore. His movement and rotations are better, and he has developed a solid man-on-man defense.
“He’s an improved player,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle to Jeff Caplan of ESPN after Game 1 about Ibaka. “You’ve got to give him his props for how he’s developing, how they’re developing him. He’s more than just a shot-blocker.”
Surprisingly, last year’s NBA lockout actually helped Ibaka. While a lot of players were waiting around for good news on the lockout ending, Ibaka was playing high-level basketball on the Spanish National Team. He was around such players as Juan Carlos Navarro and brothers Pau and Marc Gasol. The team went on to capture the gold medal in Eurobasket 2011, and Ibaka was one of the difference-makers in the final game. At one point, he made five blocks in a span of five minutes, which was key in Spain building a deciding lead over its opponent, France.
A more-developed Ibaka returned to the Thunder sporting a higher degree of confidence and focus. In fact, Ibaka uses the word “focus” quite frequently when speaking about his solid season and his game plan for subsequent series. Others do, too.
“The way Serge has been locked in and focused, that’s what we needed from him all season,” Perkins said. “I think his on-the-ball defense has been the best it’s been all year. We know he’s going to block shots. His pick-and-roll defense has been great, too, the way he’s been showing on pick-and-rolls and getting back.”
Perkins added one more thing about the 6’10 22-year-old, who some call “Air Congo” and others call “Iblocka.”
“I’m more impressed by how he’s been talking on defense,” Perkins said. “He’s been talking more than ever.”
“You may not understand everything he’s saying,” Perkins added with a sly smile. “But he’s been talking more than ever.”
“All my teammates know I work hard every day in practice,” Ibaka said. “They know that. The best thing for me to do is find the open spot because I know they can find me. Because they know I can make shots. They know I can finish at the basket. It’s just confidence.”
During the regular season, Ibaka averaged 9.1 points with a .535 field goal percentage, 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 turnovers. In the four-game series of round one, he averaged 11.0 points, .75 turnovers and 6.8 rebounds. He matched his career-high in points with 22 in Game 1 of that first round. His current .639 field goal percentage leads the league in the postseason. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is 21.5 versus 19.0 during the regular season.
He even drained his third career three-pointer in Game 1.
Perkins’ hip strain injury in Game 4 in Dallas didn’t leave Ibaka rattled. Though OKC ended up with an extended rest between series, Ibaka appeared ready for a Perk-less battle.
“If he can’t (play), that can be hard, but that’s basketball,” lbaka explained after the Perkins injury. “We need to try to do something to make (sure) our team doesn’t feel like, ‘Ok, Perk is not here, we can’t do nothing.’ Of course, we have Nazr (Mohammed), we have Nick (Collison) to try to do the best they can for the team.”
Fortunately, Perkins returned in time for the start of the Western Conference semifinals; Ibaka and Perkins are now facing the formidable duo of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers. Perk re-aggravated his injury but it does not appear serious.
It seems this Thunder-Lakers series is precisely why Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti acquired Perkins and focused on developing Ibaka. Oklahoma City is going nowhere unless they get by the Lakers, and that means getting by Bynum and Gasol. In Game 1 of the semifinals, Ibaka got off to a good start by limiting Gasol to a non-threatening ten points on five-of-eleven in field goals and no free throws. The Thunder totally dominated the game, 119-90, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Should they down the Lakers, they still have either the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers to contend with to land in the Finals. The Thunder didn’t collect many wins over those two teams in the regular season (1-3 vs. Clippers and 1-2 vs. Spurs).
Oklahoma City has invested heavily in the grooming of Ibaka; it’s reached a point now that opposing teams plan for him. Opponents respect him and how he impacts games.
“He’s a great athlete,” Mavericks’ Ian Mahinmi told John Rohde of The Oklahoman about Ibaka. “On defense, he changes a lot of shots. You’ve got to pay attention when he’s on the floor. We know Serge, we’ve just got to respect his game. He’s a helluva player.”
Ibaka’s energetic play and heart have won over his teammates and Thunder fans. His marked improvement and focus suggest the next level is there for the taking.
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