Thunder’s Ibaka not just about defense anymore

After the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder faced a

difficult question: If they couldn’t afford to keep both league

blocks-leader Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden,

which one would stay?

The Thunder ended up securing Ibaka with a long-term extension

this offseason, providing the first signal that Harden’s days in

Oklahoma City might be numbered. With Ibaka’s deal done, there

wasn’t enough salary cap space left to come close to Harden’s

demands and he was shipped off to Houston in a trade just before

the season.

Meanwhile, Ibaka has quietly been giving Oklahoma City its

money’s worth. As one of the NBA’s most accurate shooters, he’s

averaging a career-high 14.3 points and leading the Thunder in

rebounding (8.5).

”I work hard. I try to do my best I can, getting better and

better,” Ibaka said. ”I don’t want just to be like people used to

know Serge Ibaka four years ago.

”Now is my fourth year in the NBA, so I try to get better at

everything.”

When Ibaka first joined the Thunder, the expectations for the

Republic of Congo native were minimal. Coach Scott Brooks

repeatedly said his role was simply about playing defense and

providing energy. That was a starting point after Ibaka was the

20th pick in the 2008 draft and spent an extra season playing in

Europe to develop before heading to the NBA.

Since then, he’s growing – not only developing his game but

learning English. He earned an endorsement deal with Sprite around

the time the player nicknamed ”Air Congo” appeared in last year’s

slam dunk competition and threw one down after taking off from the

free-throw line.

He moved into the starting lineup and led the league in blocks

two straight years, even more impactful because of how his defense

helped trigger Oklahoma City’s fast-break offense with All-Stars

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Now he’s getting more offensive chances with the departure of

Harden, the NBA’s top-scoring reserve last season. So far this

season, Ibaka is averaging about five more points and his 2.9-block

average is behind only Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders.

”Obviously, his offensive game is expanded and he’s still

blocking shots and rebounding,” said veteran Nick Collison,

Ibaka’s backup. ”But I think his focus is a lot better.

Defensively, he’s where he should be. He’s not getting lost. He’s

been great for us.”

Ibaka’s biggest offensive impact comes from offensive rebounds

and springing free for mid-range jumpers when defenses crowd Durant

and Westbrook on the pick and roll. It’s a shot Ibaka has mastered

over the past few years, taking dozens of them at the end of

practice.

”He’s a machine,” Collison said. ”He’s been that way since

he’s been here. He works and he puts in as much time as anybody.

He’s very serious about his work and it shows. He’s improved a lot

since he’s been here.”

Earlier this season, Brooks said there may be no one on the team

he’d rather see shoot a mid-range jumper. The statistics back him

up. Ibaka is tied for fifth in the NBA, making 56 percent of his

shots, and he’s working toward improving his range to where he can

reliably make a corner 3-pointer.

While he may never be the focal point for Oklahoma City, Ibaka

is developing more ways to contribute to the NBA’s highest-scoring

offense.

”I know when you have a team with Westbrook and Kevin Durant,

one of the best scorers in the league, every night you will not

touch the ball but just be ready whenever it comes to you and try

to make plays,” Ibaka said.

Some of Ibaka’s top performances have come in some marquee games

for the Thunder. He matched his regular-season high with 25 points

and had 17 rebounds in a Western Conference finals rematch against

San Antonio and had 23 points and nine rebounds in Harden’s

much-anticipated return to Oklahoma City with Houston.

He has four 20-point games already this season, after having

just two in his first three NBA seasons – along with a few in the

playoffs.

”Now we expect it from him,” Durant said. ”When he has a

double-double, it’s not like, `Breaking news: Serge had a

double-double!’ It’s normal for him now. He’s playing well for us,

and we’re going to need that from him all season.”

The Thunder went into the weekend percentage points ahead of the

Los Angeles Clippers for the NBA’s best record, with a difficult

stretch ahead featuring 11 of their next 13 games on the road. It

starts with a back-to-back set Sunday at Toronto and Monday at

Washington.

”He’s playing well. Teams are playing small against us, so he’s

hurting them on the offensive glass and he’s making teams go big,”

Durant said. ”That’s to our advantage when we’ve got the big

fellas in there. He’s doing a great job on the offensive boards,

shooting the basketball well and he’s just playing with a lot of

confidence.”