Serge Ibaka's Development into Two-Way Player Proving Wisdom of OKC'S Choice

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Serge Ibaka's Development into Two-Way Player Proving Wisdom of OKC'S Choice
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite warnings from his doctor to expect soreness in his left calf Monday morning, Serge Ibaka awoke to find the dream is still ongoing.

"I'm not feeling worse, and that's good," Ibaka said.

So Ibaka proceeded to indulge ideas that might be fantasies to others as the Oklahoma City Thunder seek to square the Western Conference Finals, 2-2, against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.

"One thing I know: I expect to do a better job," Ibaka said a day after making his West finals debut after missing the first two games with injury.

In reviewing video of his series-changing 15-point, four-block Game 3, Ibaka noticed how much he was protecting his left leg.

"I was slow," he said.

Video backed up what Ibaka could feel during the game: cramping in his right leg because of overuse on that side. And when you're one of the few basketball players in the world who truly knows how it feels to achieve balance in this game, you know when you're leaning this way or that, favoring one side over the other.

The best scorer in the world, Kevin Durant, says Ibaka is "the best shot blocker in the world."

Indeed, it's true that in the same way Durant skews toward offense in everyone's mind, Ibaka favors defense.

But what needs to be acknowledged is that Russell Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka all play both ends of the court in an era when superstars gain their fame strictly through the points they score.

"He's the best defensive player in the league," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Ibaka. "But he's been overlooked to some degree: He also does what he does at the offensive end. He's one of the most gifted players in our league because he's a dual player. He does it at both ends of the court."

Which brings us to a short list of superstars who don't do it at the defensive end: Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard. The king of that offense-only approach is James Harden, viewed as the one whom the Thunder let get away while anteing up to pay Ibaka instead.

Harden's defensive shortcomings—and downright disinterest in trying on that end of the court—drew more public scrutiny this season with the increased attention given to his Houston Rockets. The inability to stop the Portland Trail Blazers was the biggest reason why the Rockets were surprised in the first round, leaving Harden still winless in a playoff series since he was traded away from Oklahoma City in 2012.

Ibaka, on the other hand, has developed into an offensive threat, an elite mid-range shooter who makes an impact via rolls and plays around the basket. He isn't a playmaker on offense like the aforementioned marquee players who hold the ball much of the game, and certainly not to the level of Harden, but his absence in the West finals illustrated how Ibaka does offer incalculable defense while being a tremendously valuable scorer too. 

Richard Rowe/Getty Images
Serge Ibaka's offensive presence opened space on the court for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Game 3.

Ibaka's challenge, aside from keeping that left calf together and rallying the Thunder against the Spurs, is creating a new angle to a debate that Harden's offensive skill had seemingly won and Oklahoma City had seemingly lost:

If the luxury tax-fearing Thunder thought they could afford only one, could Ibaka actually still turn out to be the better choice than Harden?

Thunder coach Scott Brooks is thoroughly convinced that Ibaka, who hasn't had half the formal basketball tutelage of his peers, will raise his game many more levels. It's easy to envision the next step of Ibaka's shooting range consistently reaching the three-point line. Further, his 6'10" frame obviously offers post-up possibilities of which smaller players can merely dream.

Then there's the issue of who is the better teammate, an area where Harden again is iffy. Accepting responsibility for helping the team at both ends is a huge part of that, a fact Ibaka need look no further than teammate Russell Westbrook for a prime example.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Despite their scoring chores, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have tried to be accountable to one another on defense.

It takes crazy energy to attack on offense the way Westbrook does. But the Thunder needs him to get all over Spurs point guard Tony Parker way up on the floor even more, and Westbrook showed in Game 3 that he will do that.

It might wear him out to the point that Westbrook rather stunningly missed an open-court dunk with four minutes left in the game (and even on the second try, only managed a layup), but Westbrook clearly is willing to serve on defense, too.

In what has been called his worst playoff game in 10 years, Parker had nine points on 4-of-13 shooting, one rebound, four assists, four turnovers and no steals. Westbrook had 26 points on 8-of-19 shooting, eight rebounds, seven assists, five turnovers and three steals. (Plus, Westbrook had one resounding swat on Parker when Ibaka had backed too deep into the lane to contest the shot.)

"We were just watching the film," Thunder forward Caron Butler said Monday, "and [Russell] did a great job of just engaging and keeping his body on Tony."

Recall that the Game 2 on-court argument between Durant and Westbrook wasn't over the ball or their shots. It was a beef about the MVP's unfocused defense at that time.

Brooks' decision to bench supposed defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha, an epic minus on offense, in favor of another offensive attacker in Reggie Jackson meant Westbrook had to step up on Parker.

Either Westbrook could relish the challenge or resist it. He could set out to save the season by jumping in with both legs or just backpedal.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Russell Westbrook hounded Tony Parker into a Game 3 performance many think was his worst playoff game in 10 years.

"You've got to understand what [Russell]'s doing on both ends of the floor and minutes he's playing—and how tough that is," Durant said.

Game recognize game, they say, and if you're one of the select few who does it at both ends, you know who is worthy of that supreme respect.

So as Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka try again Tuesday night to play both sides of their coins, it's easy to think of Harden at home and remember all his energy-saving matador waves and team-compromising poke checks from behind.

You either work to become strong at both ends or you don't. And if you don't, you're either lazy or scared. 

"Sometimes you have to put yourself out there knowing that you have a chance not to do well, and that's hard to do as an athlete because we are all prideful," Brooks said about Ibaka's Game 3 effort. "But he put himself out there knowing that he hasn't touched a basketball in a team setting, in a game setting, and who knows? It was unknown for all of us­—him, me, the team. But I'm proud that he put himself out there.

"And he got rewarded for it, really going out there and doing what he does well. That's what I'm proud of. I'm proud that he stepped up to the plate and he was able to lay everything on the line for his team."

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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