On the franchise’s biggest night since it moved to Oklahoma City three years ago, the Thunder didn’t need its stars to shine too bright.
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Not with Serge Ibaka on the floor.
The second-year center from the Republic of Congo is a big reason the Thunder is one win away from advancing to the Western Conference semifinals after a 97-94 win over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night. He’s a defensive force with his ability to block shots, but his unexpected offense was the X factor coaches crave in playoff basketball.
Ibaka scored a career playoff-high 22, including a 10 for 10 performance from the foul line to effectively end Denver’s playoff hopes.
Kevin Durant? Sure, he scored 26 and Russell Westbrook had 23, but that’s to be expected. They’re the stars. They’re supposed to score.
Not a guy who’s averaged 8.2 points in his career.
"He was the difference maker," teammate Kendrick Perkins said of Ibaka. "He knocked down his shot when he needed to, he attacked the glass, he blocked shots, he changed the game. He was the best player on the court besides KD and Russell."
The Nuggets couldn’t find that X factor Saturday night. Heck, they couldn’t find anyone who was a factor until the final minute, and it was too little, too late.
This is a franchise that had reinvented itself in February, but surprised everyone by playing better without Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.
The Nuggets relished in doing it as a team and not having to rely on an individual or two to carry them over the hump. But they sure looked as if they could have used a go-to guy in the fourth quarter. J.R. Smith made it interesting when his two three-pointers in the final 23.3 seconds cut the lead to one, but that merely made it interesting.
They went into the final 12 minutes with a two-point lead, but missed 16 of their first 20 shots to start the period. They couldn’t hit three-pointers or layups, in large part because of the Oklahoma City defense, and when they needed someone to step up no one could take the lead.
On offensive possessions late in the game, Denver seemed tentative and unsure, searching for a play that would keep it in the game. It never materialized.
"I think we’re all a little frustrated that offensively, we can’t find some answers," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "You say find the combinations. I think we’re actually executing and getting some good shots, it’s just the confidence of making some of them."
Before, it was Anthony or Billups who stepped up. Now they’re in New York, and the Nuggets are one loss away from being swept out of the playoffs.
With go-to guys to rely on, a team can find that third wheel who makes the difference in the game. That’s what Oklahoma City has in Durant and Westbrook, and it’s why Ibaka could do what he did Saturday.
"I make that kind of shot every day in practice. So, every time I’m open I take the shot. They know I can do that," Ibaka said. "For my teammates it’s no surprise because I do that kind of stuff in practice every day."
He gave his usual effort with 13 rebounds and four blocks, but his points were critical in the Thunder’s win. He had eight in the second quarter when Oklahoma City took a nine-point lead, and then he delivered a dagger midway through the fourth when he hit a soft jumper from the wing to give the Thunder an 83-78 lead.
"They’ve been leaving him open all series, and tonight he was hot," Durant said. "We kept finding him."
Just as important, Ibaka played big when the rest of the Thunder big men were in early foul trouble.
"That’s the game, it can happen," Ibaka said. "I tried to help my teammates when they got in foul trouble."
With guys like Westbrook and Durant on the floor, a 10-point lead is tough to overcome. Now the Nuggets have to try to overcome a 3-0 series deficit without a go-to guy.
"It’s frustrating," Denver guard Raymond Felton said. "I feel like I know what I’m going to say, but I don’t have the words for it."
They don’t have a superstar — or an X factor — either.