If you were to choose one member of the Oklahoma City Thunder to swat away a potential game-winner, it would be Serge Ibaka.
"He’s just one of those guys that has a knack for it," Kevin Durant said in praise of his longtime teammate. "Just like he can’t put the ball in the basket like me, I can’t block shots nowhere near as good as he can."
Nowadays, there's much more to Ibaka's game than just rim protection. On the other end of the floor, he's molded himself into one of the league's sharpest mid-range shooters and a legitimate threat from deep.
A career 37.3 percent three-point shooter, Ibaka knocked down 38 percent of his long-range looks through his first 32 games. But with Durant and Russell Westbrook back and healthy, his attempts from beyond the arc have been sliced in half, from 3.2 in 2014-15 to 1.6 in 2015-16.
"Looking at the stats last year, he probably was three-point heavy and didn’t really take a lot of twos," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan explained. "I think he’s maybe a little two-point heavy now. You’re always trying to find that balance. But his three-point shooting is always going to be predicated on people finding him, because he’s not coming down the break creating, and we’ve got to find him."
Still, Ibaka is far from a forgotten man in Oklahoma City. If the Thunder are going to compete for an NBA championship this season and hang with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, they'll need every bit of Ibaka's brilliance on both ends of the floor. A successful season may also improve their odds of retaining Durant via free agency this summer.
Bleacher Report caught up with OKC's third banana after the team's shootaround, prior to a 35-point pasting of the Los Angeles Lakers. The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
Bleacher Report: What do you think of Kevin Durant's shot-blocking technique?
Serge Ibaka: He’s solid. I saw him block a couple shots. He’s solid. He’s long. He’s getting better and better every day on defense too.
B/R: When did shot blocking first become your thing?
SI: Since I got here in the league, since my first year in the league. Now the game has kind of changed. A lot of teams play small ball, with a small power forward now, play more outside. Seven years ago, when I got here in the league, my first year, bigs was really like...you’re not going to see really large, shooting bigs. Power forward, they were rolling in the paint, playing close to the basket, close to the paint, so that’s why I became that way. I could go help and still come back, so that’s where I got the mentality to block shots.
B/R: What’s your favorite type of block?
SI: I like the one like the fast break [when you can] can come from the back. That’s my favorite one.
B/R: I read recently that your thumbs-down block celebration means "no soup for you." Are you a Seinfeld fan?
SI: Yeah, I like to watch. I’m a big fan of that.
B/R: What's your favorite episode?
SI: My favorite episode is, I think, the second episode ["The Stake Out"].
B/R: On the offensive end, you’ve become one of the better mid-range, pick-and-pop guys in the league. When did you start working on your shot in that capacity?
SI: I’ve been working on my shot since Day 1, when I got here. I was just working on my shot, waiting for my opportunity. I always believe in myself. I know I can shoot, but my first two years, I didn’t have an opportunity to do it because I was coming from the bench. I was a rookie. So I just keep working on my shot and believe in myself, knowing one day, when the opportunity is going to come, I’m going to be ready.
B/R: You're taking about half as many threes per game this year as you did last year. What’s been the difference for you?
SI: It’s just different because I’m not really for three now this year. Last year, I was so obsessed with shooting threes. This year, I feel like I’m just going to play basketball. Wherever the ball will catch me, if I’m in the triple line, I’m going to shoot. If I’m at the two-point line, I’m going to shoot. I’m still working on the triple line too.
Some games, we have a game where I have to stretch more. We have some plays where I have to be at the triple line for Kevin or Russell to attack the basket. That’s where I feel, if they pass me the ball, I’m going to shoot it. If not, really, I’m just playing basketball.
B/R: How does having Kevin and Russell back together change things for you specifically?
SI: Having both of them, the truth is I’m going to get less shots, but we’re going to get more wins. The most important thing is to win. I love to win. It’s always fun to play on a winning team. If we only have one of them, of course I’m going to get more touches in the offense. But sometimes, you’re going to have a hard time to win. It’s no fun to lose. I prefer to have both of them and taking less shots, having less touches in the offense and win the games.
B/R: Has there been a different feel to things with Billy Donovan as head coach?
SI: Yeah, we’ve got a new coach. Everything is still new. We’re still learning, still getting better. We’re getting better. We’re getting better. The last couple of days, the last three to four weeks, we’ve been getting better. We’re in a good way.
B/R: Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at what point did you think basketball could be your way to a better life?
SI: Since I was like 10, 11.
B/R: And you just kept working at it?
SI: I always believed. It was like something in my heart, inside of me, telling me, “Don’t give up. Keep working. Keep believing. Keep pushing.” Something was telling me, “Don’t give up.” When it’s your way, if God has some plan for you, He said that’s your destiny. It’s going to happen. I think that was my destiny. God had a plan for me. That’s why.
B/R: In watching Son of the Congo, you seemed to have a sense of desperation to bring that dream to life. Do you feel like you still have that sense of desperation?
SI: Yeah, I still have the same thing. I’m still pushing. I push, no matter what. I’m not comfortable yet. I always tell myself, "I’ll be done working when I’m done playing basketball." So I’m going to keep pushing, try to get better every day.
B/R: What’s it like for you to have so much quality competition (e.g. Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, Mitch McGary) in the frontcourt?
SI: It’s good. It’s good competition because it pushes you to keep working. It pushes you to stay focused, knowing, hey man, you’ve got some good players out there too. If you relax or if you don’t do your job well, you can lose your spot. That’s a good way.
All of them are tough, man. Nick’s got experience. You’ve got Steven and Enes. You’ve got Mitch. We play hard. We go hard against each other because, like I said, it’s not a given spot out there, so we try to push each other to get better.
B/R: You come from a big family. You're one of 18 siblings, and your daughter is living with you in the U.S. now. What's it like, balancing all those relatives in your life?
SI: I’ve got my brother and sister in Oklahoma. They live in Oklahoma too. After the season, I’ll go back home to see my family. That’s how I do it. It’s fun, man. It’s fun. It’s fun. It’s always good to spend time with your family.
[My daughter] is doing great. She’s living here with me now. She’s here now. She’s living with me. She’s my best Christmas gift this year because this is our first time we’re going to spend Christmas together. I feel so thankful for that one.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.