What OKC Thunder Need from Serge Ibaka During NBA Playoffs

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What OKC Thunder Need from Serge Ibaka During NBA Playoffs
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
The Thunder need Serge Ibaka to come up big in the playoffs.

The Oklahoma City Thunder may be led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but Serge Ibaka is the player who really stabilizes them.

Ibaka is a force on both ends—an elite rim-protector and pick-and-roll defender and an important source of shooting and spacing offensively. He's been great this season, averaging 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game on 57.6 percent true shooting, and OKC will need to see that and more in the postseason.

For the Thunder to make a deep playoff run, Ibaka will have to bring some specific things to the table. Let's take a look at what OKC needs from its young big man this postseason.

 

Strong Pick-And-Roll Play

Ibaka has played nearly a quarter of his minutes at the 5 this season, per 82games.com, a big jump from last year. Lineups with Ibaka at center are outscoring opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions, via 82games.com, and the Thunder put up points like crazy when he's there.

Durant is a killer at the 4, where he can pick on bigger, slower forwards, but the real star of the OKC small-ball units is Ibaka.

A big chunk of Ibaka's offense comes from mid-range jumpers out of pick-and-pop sets. He's one of the league's best from mid-range, and Durant and Westbrook draw so much defensive attention that he gets a ton of uncontested looks.

But all that pick-and-pop is also run out of necessity. Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams are both relative non-threats offensively, and their men often leave them to clog up the paint and provide help on drives or hard rolls to the basket.

When the Thunder play small, that all changes. OKC's primary way of attacking in small lineups is by spreading the floor with shooters and running a pick-and-roll near the top of the key. Durant and Westbrook are both very good pick-and-roll passers, and when defenses commit to them, the result generally looks something like this:

That's the kind of stuff they'll need more of in the postseason, especially if Scott Brooks is as committed to playing small as he was in Game 1 of OKC's first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Thunder don't just need Ibaka to catch and score in the pick-and-roll, though, they need him to read defenses and react appropriately.

Ibaka's never going to be a Marc Gasol- or Joakim Noah-esque pick-and-roll passer, but he's improving in that facet. He's nearly doubled his assist rate from last season, and he's flashed some nice touch passing over the past few months.

Credit: Instagiffer

Again, he's probably not going to be passing like that consistently, but even just a few of those plays could change how defenses treat him.

 

Post Defense

This goes hand in hand with OKC playing small more. Ibaka's going to need to step up his defense on the low block for the Thunder to make it through the West.

Night in and night out, Ibaka protects the rim and plays great pick-and-roll defense. His post defense is a mixed bag, though, and quite literally every playoff team in the West has a strong low-post scorer who could take advantage of that.

Opponents are shooting 49 percent against Ibaka in post-up situations, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). That's right in line with what Blake Griffin shot for the season, and he's one of the league's three or four best post scorers.

Ibaka still struggles with ball fakes, and players with quick face-up games blow by him more easily than they should.

Credit: Instagiffer

Perkins, Adams and Nick Collison are all good defensive bigs, and OKC freely switches them onto its opponents' best post players so that Ibaka can focus on providing weak-side help. In Game 1 against Memphis, Ibaka rarely guarded Zach Randolph and instead was tasked with using his length and athleticism to bother Gasol.

The problem with switching Ibaka like that is the Thunder's three other bigs all foul a ton—Randolph went to the line 12 times, and it could have been more if the officials decided to call the game tightly.

Even worse, Ibaka's post troubles limit the amount of time that the Thunder can commit to playing small, or at least playing Durant at the 4. OKC sometimes needs to have another big out on the floor to keep Ibaka out of foul trouble or get a few defensive stops.

Ibaka has played strong defense on the low block before, and the Thunder will need that in the postseason. They can certainly survive with traditional two-big lineups, but it's not always ideal.

 

Consistent Mid-Range Shooting

Ibaka's a nightmare to defend on hard cuts to the basket, but that's not to discount the importance of his mid-range game.

OKC's starting lineup plays about 15 minutes a game and features two guys that teams more or less ignore on the offensive end in Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha (whose three-point shot has mysteriously abandoned him this season).

That leads to a lot of extra defensive attention for Durant and Westbrook, and Ibaka's ability to hit jumpers is what frees up space for them.

Teams like to blitz Durant in particular on pick-and-rolls, and he's mastered skipping pocket passes between defenders to Ibaka.

Credit: Instagiffer

When Ibaka's on and connecting on those jumpers, defenses have the unpleasant choice of surrendering good mid-range looks (not a great idea), or letting Durant come off picks unhindered (an even worse idea).

But if Ibaka goes cold, as he did against Memphis in last year's playoffs, that choice becomes a lot easier for opponents. Ibaka shot just 25.8 percent from mid-range against the Grizzlies last season, and toward the end of the series, Memphis was ignoring just about everyone on the court and throwing three or four guys at Durant.

Having Westbrook back will undoubtedly help with that, but even so, the Thunder offense isn't really ticking unless Ibaka is hitting his jumpers.

And as an aside, OKC would also really benefit if Ibaka kept on hitting corner threes. He's shooting 35 percent from the corners this season, and when defenders are worried about him from that distance (as Noah is below), Westbrook-Durant pick-and-rolls are borderline unstoppable.

Credit: Instagiffer

 

Conclusion

Ibaka has been awesome all year. He's been more consistent and more versatile on both ends, and even though Durant got most of the attention, he played a huge role in the Thunder's success without Westbrook.

But as good as he's been, OKC is going to need even more from him if it's to make it through an absolutely brutal Western Conference. Ibaka's shown flashes of dominance on both ends. Time to put it all together.

 

All stats accurate as of 4/20/2014 and courtesy of NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.

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