Serge Ibaka was about to check out of the team hotel in San Antonio when Kevin Durant stopped him to share the news that shook up the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Durant told his big man that Jeff Green had just been traded. Ibaka, like the rest of his teammates, never saw it coming.
“When the trades were talked about on TV, they never talked about Oklahoma,” Ibaka remembered of Feb. 24, trade-deadline day. “So we didn't know nothing.”
But unlike everyone else capable of forming an opinion, Ibaka had doubts about the deal. Durant had informed Ibaka that he was the new starting power forward. The two-time All-Star told the second-year role player he now needed to step up.
“I was like, ‘Whoa,'” Ibaka said, animated as if it happened yesterday.
For a moment, Ibaka wondered if he was good enough. He spent the next few minutes racing through the possibilities. He couldn't help but contemplate what if something went wrong.
“I was thinking, ‘Now I'm a starter, and if the team (starts) to lose the media will start to talk,'” Ibaka said.
In Ibaka's mind, the Thunder had just rolled the dice.
In reality, the Thunder traded away Green and acquired Ibaka. Oklahoma City shipped out a serviceable 4-man before finally saying hello to the stud who was being stymied on the bench.
Since the Thunder dealt Green along with Nenad Krstic and a future first-round pick to Boston in exchange for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson, it's been Perkins who has garnered most of the press. The 6-10 center came over from the Celtics and immediately was lauded as the interior presence the Thunder had longed for.
Few figured Ibaka would have the impact he's had. When it came to the second-year man from Congo, most wondered how the Thunder would replace Green's offense with Ibaka in the lineup.
But as the full-time starter for the final 26 games, Ibaka averaged 11 points, a mere 4.2 fewer than Green averaged in his 49 games as the team's starting power forward. Ibaka's 51 percent shooting from the field, however, dwarfed Green's 43.7-percent clip. And what Ibaka couldn't replace — Green's 3-point shooting — he made up in other areas.
Can you say defense?
With Green undersized and outmatched almost nightly, opposing power forwards routinely ran through the Thunder. Ibaka's length and athleticism has put a stop to that. Ibaka's rebounding average went from 7.1 per game to 8.5 per game. His blocks shot up from 2.05 to 3.19 per game.
At just 21, Ibaka finished the season as the league leader in total blocked shots with 198. Only four players in NBA history have recorded more blocks in a single season at 21 or younger: Tim Duncan, Benoit Benjamin, Josh Smith and Shaquille O'Neal. Only Benjamin, Smith and O'Neal were younger than Ibaka.
“I think that's who he is,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He's not just having a good season. I see him being among the league leaders every year.”
With Ibaka patrolling the paint, the Thunder's team blocks ballooned from 5.5 per game before the trade to 6.8 on average after it. Oklahoma City also held opponents to 3.8 fewer points per game while reducing its defensive field-goal percentage by 2.2 percent.
Oh, and as for those offensive concerns?
The Thunder has actually scored 0.7 more points since the trade while shooting slightly better from the field and from beyond the arc.
Did we mention the Thunder went 19-7 following the trade that paved the way for Ibaka to become a starter?
“If I (look at) myself from last year to this year, I really did get better,” Ibaka said. “I really did progress. And I am sure I can get better.”
The Thunder doesn't have to hope so. The team knows Ibaka is not a finished product. The only hope is that he shows growth in this year's playoffs. Last year's first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers was Ibaka's coming-out party. Game 2 to be exact. Although the Thunder fell by three on the road, Ibaka tallied seven of the Thunder's 17 blocked shots. The performance against the champs had officially put the league on notice.
Now, the Denver Nuggets need beware. But unlike last season, when his role was simply to rebound, block shots and run the floor in the postseason, Ibaka's responsibilities have grown.
Ibaka can now call for the ball on the block and know that he has a growing number of moves he can go to for a bucket. His faceup game, meanwhile, has been fantastic. The statistics, 42 percent from 16 to 23 feet, aren't stellar but they show the growth in a second-year player who shot only 39 percent from that range as a rookie.
And when you add those developing offensive weapons to Ibaka's average of 3.4 blocks in March, a career-best for any month, and 3.1 rejections in April, it all adds up to form a player who's morphing into a machine.
“A freak,” Perkins branded Ibaka.
The freak just needed an opening.
And deep down, despite those initial moments of trepidation, Ibaka knew he was ready. He had been preparing for this opportunity since his childhood days in the Congo, grooming for his shot at basketball glory since he jump started his pro career in Spain.
“I always told myself if I am humble and keep working hard one day I would do something important in basketball. And I didn't do it yet,” Ibaka said. “I'm sure if I keep working like I do right now I will do it one day.”