While the Miami Heat find themselves picking up the pieces after the breakup of their Big Three and the Cleveland Cavaliers busy themselves trying to create a new one, the Oklahoma City Thunder have quietly developed one of their own, thanks to the steady improvement of Serge Ibaka. In five years playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Congolese native has transformed from raw reserve to defensive anchor.
After a leg injury saw him miss the first two games of OKC's loss in the West finals to the San Antonio Spurs, Ibaka eventually found his way back where he first landed in the U.S. as a 17-year-old, Las Vegas. It was there, at an Impact Basketball facility, that Ibaka first began preparing for a career in the NBA with trainer Joe Abunassar, and it was there that he recently returned to work with Abunassar for the seventh straight summer.
After one of his workouts, the Thunder star spoke with Bleacher Report about time off after the season, recovering from his playoff injury, losing to the Spurs, what's next for his team and more.
Bleacher Report: Early reports had you out for the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals after suffering a left calf strain against the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 2. Yet you made a surprisingly quick return by Game 3 vs. the Spurs. What do you remember about the injury?
Serge Ibaka: There was a complete rupture in my left calf. My calf was huge and swollen. The doctors told me, "You're out for the playoffs. It's over."
B/R: In your mind, did you ever expect to be back?
SI: I expected to be back. Every hour, I was icing and getting treatment. I was told that most players would've never come back, but the attention to detail I put in my rehab helped. That's how I train, too. I'm very detailed. I remember on game day in the morning [of Game 3 against the Spurs], I was still limping. I said, "Damn, can I play today?" When I got to the game, it started feeling better and I played.
B/R: What was the hardest part during the recovery?
SI: The hard part is it was the playoffs, and I had to sit down for almost 10 days and not do anything. You take 10 days off and then also you're not 100 percent yet. I was out of shape and I was only playing with really one leg when I returned, so it was tough.
B/R: If it was the regular season, do you think you would've taken off more time?
SI: Of course, hell yeah. I would've waited a couple of weeks. In the playoffs, it's win or you go home.
B/R: So how are you feeling now?
SI: I'm not 100 percent back yet, but I'm getting better. I'm trying to get back in shape and it's going to take time.
B/R: Regardless of the injury, what did you guys learn from losing to the Spurs?
SI: It's tough. We lost to the champions, and they have the best coach in basketball. It also was the best offense I've ever played against. Did you see the MVP of the Finals [Kawhi Leonard]? Nobody was expecting him, but they have no superstar when they play offense.
Everybody knows who's really the man on the team—Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili—but when they play, they don't really care who's going to score. They just make extra passes for no reason. One time I remember [in the conference finals], Ginobili was going up for a wide-open layup, but he still passed the ball.
It's the perfect way for every team to play.
When we played them, we learned that we still have room to grow. We have to defend first and then focus on offense. We need to make sacrifices on our team to beat them, 100 percent. We cannot give 80, 90 percent, or we'll go home.
B/R: How do you find your role offensively? Does Thunder coach Scott Brooks tell you in training camp or is it more of a feeling-out process?
SI: It's a process because our team's great offense starts with Wes [Westbrook] and Kevin. I don't have expectations, but I work on my offensive game just to be ready.
B/R: You're working on your post moves this summer with the help of former NBA big man Michael Ruffin. Do you expect to get more touches down low next season?
SI: A lot of people don't understand; this is my fourth summer I've been working on my post moves. In our offense, we don't need to low post. We like to move, attack and kick, since we have Durant and Westbrook. But I always work on my post moves because you never know when the opportunity is going to come. I also worked on my jump shot and a one-dribble attack the basket.
B/R: You've emerged as the defensive anchor for the Thunder. With all of the talented, young point guards in the league, it must make guarding pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll one of the hardest things to do, especially for you. What is your approach?
SI: It's hard to go through everything because [the point guards are] very good. The only thing you can do is be aggressive on the pick-and-roll and then rotate back. They're so good that they can do whatever they want to do and shoot the ball, so the focus on the pick-and-roll is to just jump the play to make your point guard's job easier. You need to be aggressive all the time. It's tough.
B/R: Your former teammate, Derek Fisher, left this summer to coach the New York Knicks. How do you think he'll do in his first year?
SI: That's a big step. I'm so happy for him. I think he's going to do well, but the first year is always tough for anybody.
B/R: Did he act as a practice coach with you guys last season?
SI: Yeah, he was involved. He's a great leader. He's a great professional.
B/R: And he's in incredible shape.
SI: Always. Sometimes I would ask him, "Did you come from a gym?" He looks like he comes from the gym every time. He was thinking about playing maybe one more year. I always tell him, "You can play eight more years."
B/R: Did his gym-rat mentality rub off on the younger players like you?
SI: Exactly. I love to lift. So every time I see him, I get more motivation and I ask him questions, like "How do you do it?" He was great for our team and I learned a lot from him.
B/R: You recently returned from overseas, where you spent part of the time attending Paris Fashion Week. What was that like?
SI: It was great. It was my first time there. It was different than America, but it was interesting. The fashion is more aggressive. You have to really be into fashion to understand what is going on.
B/R: How would you describe your style?
SI: My style is not too aggressive. I just like to look nice. That's why my Instagram name is "mr_avecclasse." It's French for "with class."
B/R: During the Spanish national team's training camp, you'll be reunited with Pau Gasol. What were your thoughts about the reports he was considering the Thunder?
SI: I saw that. He's a player that every team would love to have. He can score, pass the ball, he can shoot. He's a very smart player. You don't have to call a play for him.
B/R: Besides Team USA, do you guys feel like you're the team to beat in the upcoming World Cup?
SI: Don't say that. Brazil is a good team; Argentina, too. But we'll be good. In the U.S., you can attack every time. In Europe, it's more of a team. It's not like one player. And we have a good team.