The biggest play of the biggest game of this Thunder season so far came down to Serge Ibaka.
Not Kevin Durant.
Not Russell Westbrook.
Not what you might've expected, but the play was symbolic of how the young power forward is improving right before our eyes.
Let's set the scene — Thunder vs. Heat, Sunday night, midway through the fourth quarter. The Thunder had cruised through the first 31/2 quarters, but then in a flash, the Heat had whacked a 16-point lead in half. Miami was hitting shots, forcing turnovers and causing Oklahoma City fans to have heart palpitations.
When Durant clanged a jumper, the Thunder seemed destined for its third consecutive empty possession in crunchtime.
But Ibaka went after the rebound. He lunged. He battled. And somehow, he finally corralled the ball and passed it to James Harden.
It was a big-boy board.
Of course, we all know what Ibaka can do on the boards. He rebounds with the best of them. He fights with a tenacity that even some of the best big men in the league don't have.
But wait, there's more.
What Ibaka did went beyond the rebound. After snagging the board, he went immediately to the corner, to that 16- to 18-foot range where he is nearly automatic, to the spot that is fast becoming his spot. Harden saw him and got the ball right back to him, and Ibaka stuck the jumper.
End of the Heat's run.
End of its chance of winning, too.
“First of all, offensive rebounding is my job,” he said. “And you know, every day, I work my shot after practice. All my teammates, they know that. I was open, and James found me because he knows that I can make that shot.”
Ho hum, huh?
Just because Ibaka downplayed the moment doesn't mean that anyone else should. This play is just the latest example of how his game is developing and flourishing. This is not to suggest that he hadn't played well earlier this season or even last season; Ibaka has been good for the Thunder.
But now, he's showing just how great he could be.
“Like I always told him, most of the nights he's the most athletic big on the court,” fellow Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins said. “He runs the fastest, jumps the highest, all of that.”
Some of those physical gifts haven't always translated to big stats or great performances. Ibaka, of course, is still a young guy, still a developing player. But of late, he's started to turn a big corner.
Consider, for example, that Ibaka has scored in double digits in almost as many games in March (eight) as he did in the first three months of the season (12).
Talk about a Serge surge.
“Serge hasn't been worrying about if plays are going to get called for him,” Perk said. “think in the beginning of the season, he was.
“I think he's just finding the open spots, and he's attacking the offensive glass.”
What's more, as Ibaka's scoring has gone up, his rebounds, blocks and defense have not suffered.
In fact, they've gotten better.
“His on-ball defense one on one has improved a lot,” veteran big man Nazr Mohammed said. “He's known as a shot blocker, and as with most shot blockers, they're not shutdown defenders on their own man.”
But look at what Ibaka did against Blake Griffin last week. The Clippers star scored only seven points and managed to make just three of his 11 shots.
“He pretty much stuck him heads up one on one,” Mohammed said. “He's been taking a lot of pride in guarding his man and going to block shots. That's unheard of and unbelievable — guys who can shut their man down and block as many shots as he does.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said: “He's more than just a shot blocker. He's developed his game, and he's going to continue to develop.”
Brooks has long said things like that about Ibaka, but in the past few weeks, that evolution is becoming more and more obvious all the time.
That is great news for the Thunder. In the Western Conference, an ever-improving Ibaka is vital for this team. There seems to be a formidable front-line lurking around every corner — road games this week vs. the Blazers and the Lakers are evidence of that — so getting big contributions from Ibaka is critical.
Mind you, the 22-year-old is not perfect. He needs to do a better job catching the ball at the rim. He needs to finish in traffic more consistently. But even those things have improved.
Serge continues to impress.
The chances are good, of course, that Ibaka will never become the Thunder's biggest star. Not exactly a travesty on a team with Durant, Westbrook and Harden, is it? But from what we've seen lately, Ibaka can make serious contributions.
The biggest play in the biggest game is evidence of that.