Per usual, Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote a really interesting piece on the Thunder and more specifically, Serge Ibaka, dissecting things after almost 20 games. The conclusion was this: Ibaka is playing better than ever, on both ends. And that’s been a really important part to OKC’s 15-4 start.
Ibaka’s still maintaining his shot blocking chops — averaging 3.26 a game, best in the league — but he’s also a much steadier pick-and-roll presence, a better communicator and an improving post defender.
Ibaka’s evolution this season has been tremendous, and a big part why the Thunder have improved on both ends of the floor. Lowe notes a great stat: “A whopping 78.7 percent of his baskets have come via dimes from teammates, up from 67.6 percent last season, per NBA.com.” That means two things: 1) The Thunder are looking for a Ibaka a whole lot more and 2) Russell Westbrook is looking for Ibaka a whole lot more.
There’s no question Ibaka has taken a giant leap forward offensively. His scoring is up, he’s consistently involved and he’s much more aggressive. The other end though, still needs some refinement.
Lowe highlighted the third quarter breakdown OKC had when the Nets went small. Ibaka was covering Gerald Wallace and the Nets shot their way back from a 16-point deficit. It was painfully reminiscent of Shane Battier drilling the Thunder in the Finals. To which if OKC gets back to the Finals again against the Heat, the Thunder, and Ibaka, need to be better prepared. Two plays of note from Tuesday:
The possession before this, the Nets ran the same action and Jerry Stackhouse drilled a 3. You could really make the case that Ibaka leaving Wallace this open was as much Eric Maynor’s fault as it was his. Maynor overhedged on Deron Williams and was late getting back to Stackhouse. This caused Ibaka to shade Stackhouse’s way — again, with that last 3 in his head.
This type of play is forgivable. It happens. You helped, were a touch late getting back, got a solid contest anyway, but an NBA player made a shot. Next play, move on.
The second though was more frustrating.
Same action from the Nets again, this time Maynor felt it all a little better. He got back to Stackhouse and took away the 3. Stackhouse though put the ball hard on the floor attacking the paint. Ibaka’s instinct said, “GUY GOING TO THE BASKET ENGAGE BLOCK SHOT PROTOCOL.”
Instead, he’s got to know that of course Nick Collison will be rotating over perfectly to cut off the drive. So Ibaka is left standing there, basically in no man’s land. Not helping on Stackhouse’s drive and certainly not covering Wallace.
Like I said last night, a lot of this has to do with Scott Brooks deciding not to match up. A questionable choice, but he was trying to get Durant some rest before the fourth quarter and with Perry Jones III being in the D-League (as well as not ready to handle the situation), Brooks didn’t really have a great option.
Fourth quarter though, the Thunder went big against the Nets small and it worked. Ibaka learned his lesson, stayed home and didn’t get caught with his hand in the cookie jar any.
Point is this with Ibaka: He’s getting better. And still has a lot more room to grow on where he’s already at. I have a feeling in another year or two, we’ll be talking about Ibaka’s four-year, $48 million deal as one of the best in the league.
His offensive development is just going to keep progressing though. He’s got the hard part figured out. He can shoot. He has good touch around the rim, he’s catching better and with Durant and Westbrook including him as a real third wheel, he’s a legit weapon. The next things on his plate are adding more of a dribble-drive game, more post-ups and maybe extend out to the 3-point line a little more. The crazy thing with Ibaka is that none of that stuff seems unreasonable. With how far he’s come the past few years, if he was running point guard and pick-and-rolls in two years, I’m not so sure I’d be shocked.
On the defensive end, he’s getting there too. It’s the little things like court awareness and feeling where your help is. He knows he can block almost anything. His timing and ability to use his length and raw jumping power is unreal. But what makes a defender truly elite is being able to combat all situations. He’s getting better against pick-and-rolls. He’s better on the ball. He’s better leaving his man and rotating at the right time. He’s better at defending centers.
But he’s not great at any of it, which just means he needs to get better. Which to Ibaka, is no big deal.