Two games, three total blocks. I think that says it all right there.
Serge Ibaka has started very slowly for the Thunder. Against Orlando opening night, he didn’t score, had six rebounds and two blocks in just 23 minutes. Against Minnesota Monday, he scored six points, had six boards and a block in just 19 minutes.
It’s early — just two games early — but it feels like we have to ask what’s up with Serge? After a summer where he spent time in Spain working out a post game, got stronger and has the experience of starting the last half of the season, big things were expected. I ever pegged him as my darkhorse for Defensive Player of the Year. I thought there was potential for him to sneak into the All-Star Game.
And guess what: All those things can still happen. It’s been two games.
Why has he started slowly and why have his minutes been dashed so severely? It’s simple: matchups. Against the Magic, Ibaka had trouble defending the perimeter oriented Ryan Anderson. Against the Wolves, Minnesota went small the entire second half so Scott Brooks matched it by putting Kevin Durant at the 4.
Here’s the thing: That’s not new. Brooks loves to play small. Last season either Nick Collison or Ibaka got the time at the 5 because Perk was slow and fat, but now that he’s a monster again, Perk got those minutes in crunchtime.
And on top of that, the Thunder are a different kind of machine this season. You can tell James Harden is a more aggressive player that’s looking to carry the offense at times. KD is KD and Russ is Russ. After that, there’s not a whole lot of room for shots. I would bet that the Thunder don’t have a single play designed for Ibaka. Because that’s not his role. He’s out there to patrol the paint, rebound, give energy and make an open 18-footer when afforded the opportunity.
Would it be good if the Thunder could work him some in the post? Absolutely. And I think that’s coming. But we’re two games into a season where the Thunder have played a team with a traditional rotation. Against the Grizzlies Wednesday, I’d be surprised if Ibaka doesn’t play 25-30 minutes. If he doesn’t, then maybe it’s time to wonder.
Last season’s final 30 games weren’t a flash in the pan for Ibaka. He’s a young player with a bunch of talent and upside that’s still figuring it out. To expect him to walk on the court and put up double-doubles nightly probably isn’t fair. I’m as guilty as anyone in that. But he’s shown too much promise not to be excited. The Thunder are 2-0 having dominated one game against an Eastern contender and surviving a scrappy upstart on the second night of a back-to-back. Ibaka played, but didn’t play great and didn’t play a lot.
He looked good in preseason play (he blocked Dirk’s unblockable shot) and hasn’t necessarily looked bad the first two games. He’s just been a tad unproductive. That’s not like him, but again, Ibaka is a role player. The idea of a role player is you do your job, or your role, when called upon. Whether that’s blocking a shot in 15 minutes or blocking 10 in 35 minutes, you just do your job.
Is something up with Ibaka? Let’s hold judgment on that until at the second week of the season.