For as long as they’ve been blazing the contender's trail, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been seen as a team far too tethered to the delicate balance—of both talents and egos—between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Can KD carry his team to a title? Is Russ shooting too much? How can the two’s peerless skill sets best be melded or—on nights when Westbrook seems most hellbent on silencing the critics—delicately divided?
Serge Ibaka’s recent stellar play has the potential to render all of it moot.
With his 20-point, six-rebound performance in OKC’s 118-112 Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Clippers Friday night, Ibaka positioned himself as the undisputed X-factor in the two teams’ best-of-seven series—the kind of third fiddle that could mean the difference between yet another failed playoff foray and a vindicating victory in the NBA Finals.
It’s a role that’s bound to suit Ibaka better than the reluctant Robin of last year’s playoffs, when the Thunder—without an injured Westbrook—were bested in five games by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Ibaka’s stat line in that series, while by no means horrendous, was hardly that of a steady secondary option: 12.6 points and 8.4 rebounds on 37 percent shooting.
What a difference a reduced burden makes: In the Thunder’s seven-game Round 1 win over the Grizzlies, Ibaka tallied 13 points and 8.9 rebounds on—and this is by far the most important number of all—60 percent from the floor.
In three games against the Clippers, Ibaka has registered 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds (a slight decrease, for sure) on a phenomenal 72 percent field-goal clip.
It’s that kind of unflappable efficiency OKC absolutely needs if the team is to make good on its 2-1 series lead.
The February return of Westbrook from a knee injury may have forced Ibaka back into the offensive shadows, but as Bleacher Report’s Fred Katz illustrated back in March, the months spent as KD’s unquestioned right-hand man paid some real dividends indeed:
That was Ibaka last year, a model of inconsistency. This year, though, he's locked down. And it's possible Westbrook's long absence from the lineup actually helped him, at least at the offensive end.
Without his starting point guard, whom he relied on so heavily to score, Ibaka had to create new ways to get the ball into the hoop. He had to adapt, part of basketball Darwinism at its finest.
Now he can run the pick-and-pop properly with Durant. He can roll and finish around the hoop. He's moving off the ball and finding open spaces in the defense like he hasn't before.
Ibaka’s contributions are particularly crucial considering Blake Griffin’s own 34-point, Game 3 outburst.
Indeed, stopping Griffin—ever-growing as his game is toward intergalactic greatness—has become an impossible prospect, even for a skilled defender of Ibaka’s pedigree.
But containing Griffin, making him work at both ends of the floor: If it’s not at the top of the list of Thunder to dos, it’s close.
"He's a great player," Ibaka, speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins after OKC’s Game 3 win, said of Griffin. "It's always good to play against the best. I'm sure he enjoys playing against me, too."
Given a shared past that could most politely be described as bitterly contentious, Ibaka’s words were high praise indeed.
The Thunder were 45-14 during the regular season in games when Ibaka attempted at least 10 shots from the field.
Granted, a good number of those came while Westbrook was in recovery. Still, the suggestion—while not exactly airtight—is significant enough: The Thunder are at or near their best when Ibaka’s involved in the offense.
As the series grinds on, where Ibaka plays could prove just as important as the how. According to NBA.com (media stats subscription only), OKC’s best lineup (when adjusted for minutes played) is the group featuring Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Durant, Caron Butler and Ibaka at center.
While not the kind of panacea head coach Scott Brooks can depend on for 30-plus minutes a game, the Thunder’s 138 offensive rating with Ibaka in the middle portends the potential for small ball to give the Clippers fits.
Those expecting for Ibaka to author a Hall of Fame career as the Thunder's third banana are tilting and theoretical windmills. Indeed, it might require a change of scenery—either by free agency or a change in OKC's landscape—for Ibaka to every truly have the opportunity to approach his potential.
With KD and Russ in the fold, there are simply too few shots for Ibaka to crest the upper echelon of NBA power forwards.
At the same time, his productivity has proved indispensable on a team both brim-loaded with talent and tantalizingly close to finally actuating it.
Ibaka may have yet to make the next-level leap many have come to expect. But if the steady, season-to-season improvement has any kind of long-term playoff bearing, it’s that his contributions—while steadier than they are incendiary—will only grow in importance.
Some NBA.com stats are media-only and require a subscription. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of May 10, unless otherwise noted.