NEW ORLEANS — In his best English yet, Serge Ibaka explained how he’s gone from wide-eyed rookie to poised impact player. How, in his first year in a new country and inaugural season in the world’s best basketball league, he’s transitioned from a player who registered one “DNP” after another to one who is capable of 11 minutes, 46 seconds of crunch-time action at New Orleans on Wednesday night and manages to be effective despite all the difficulties.
“I don’t feel pressure because I am 40 games into the NBA,” Ibaka said.
Something about the simplicity of his explanation summed up his maturity over four short months and potentially foreshadowed what’s in store for the 2008 24th overall pick.
Ibaka is developing faster than anyone with the Thunder could have projected. And anyone in the organization is more than willing to admit as much. The 6-foot-10 post player from Congo has blossomed into a bonafide post threat, one that rebounds, blocks shots and patrols the paint like no one this franchise has seen since Shawn Kemp more than a decade ago.
Coach Scott Brooks trusted Ibaka in the tightest of spots Wednesday night against an ailing but hungry Hornets team the Thunder needed to beat to maintain ground in the Western Conference race. But the big man has made it easy on his coach, showing Brooks since mid-December that if he supplies meaningful minutes he won’t let his coach or his teammates down.
Ibaka’s latest testament was a two-point, four-rebound, one-assist effort in the fourth quarter against the Hornets , a performance that proved one day Ibaka could become much more than a bit player whose name the PA announcer had to be reminded how to pronounce for the second time this season.
“He’s just calmer on the court,” said Thabo Sefolosha. “At first he just wanted to do a little bit of everything. Now he’s starting to figure out his game and understand the NBA game, the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s doing good things and I think he can improve so much.”
You’d be equally impressed if you heard Ibaka communicate his role through his improving but still choppy English. He speaks with an intelligence that bellies his youth and will bolster your belief in his basketball IQ.
“The last minute is very important for the team,” Ibaka said. “So it’s better for me to give more focus to my job, protect the paint, rebound, screens. That’s important.”
Ibaka was asked about his four big rebounds in the fourth quarter, when the Hornets made their run and any second-chance opportunity for them could have been the difference.
“I know my team needs the rebound,” Ibaka started. “It’s very important for my team because before we lost some games because of rebounds. So I know that is my job. That is my specialty, to help my teammates. I need to be very strong and go in and get rebounds.”
Ibaka finished with six points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots in just 23 minutes Wednesday night. The belief is the blocked shots will increase over this season’s second half and progress even more into next season as he learns opponent’s tendencies. So too will his scoring, when he masters footwork and positioning in the post.
“That kid is improving,” Brooks said. “He’s really helping us win games. He’s just solid. Every game he brings solid effort and he’s picking things up. He still has communication issues with me in the heat of the moment when I’m talking a mile a minute and talking basketball talk. But he’s picking it up. He’s working and improving and it’s great to see.”
- With a game-high 30 points, Kevin Durant extended his streak of 25-point-plus games to 23 games. I’m beginning to wonder when a team, or even an individual defender, is going to get a hold of that stat and decide it stops with them.
- Russell Westbrook assembled another big-time performance with 26 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and only two turnovers. The best thing about his performance tonight and any other like it is you never get the sense that Westbrook is dominating the ball when he puts up these eye-popping stats.
- David West, who New Orleans/Oklahoma City fans remember as being the most clutch player in the team’s two-year stay, didn’t play the entire fourth quarter. Coach/General manager Jeff Bower went with…..Darius Songaila down the stretch. Makes me believe a trade is in the works for Mr. West. The decision by Bower can’t be criticized, however, because the Hornets nearly won the game.
- West was absolutely destroying the Thunder in the first half, though.
- Peja Stojakovic hit a late 3-pointer over Jeff Green and all Green could do was shake his head. Peja’s been known to have that effect on defenders.
- The Thunder had 18 turnovers tonight. OKC had seven in the first quarter alone, just one night after finishing with a season-low seven for the game against Atlanta. New Orleans scored 25 points off those giveaways.
- Durant had a season-high tying eight turnovers. Not good.
- Maybe I missed something. But I can’t help but wonder what Thabo Sefolosha did well tonight. He went scoreless with zero rebounds, two steals, two assists and one block and Hornets rookie guard Marcus Thornton had a team-high 22 points and a career-high six assists.
- Overlooked stat of the game — 11 free throw attempts by the Hornets. The Thunder’s opponent season-low is eight (against the Bulls last Wednesday), but that indicates OKC was playing solid defense without fouling, always a good way to go. The Thunder’s 15 fouls were one shy of tying a season-low, set back on Dec. 29 at Washington.
- The 28 total fouls was a season-low for any Thunder game.
- Without injured guard Chris Paul, the Hornets had 30 assists against nine turnovers. Wow.
- Has James Harden hit the rookie wall or is he getting lost in the shuffle of Durant’s scoring outbursts?
- Nick Collison’s 10 rebounds were huge, helping the Thunder out-rebound the Hornets 43-37.
- Etan Thomas was back with the team tonight. Still no word on why he wasn’t in the arena Tuesday night.
- Make that two straight games in which Nenad Krstic has put together a nice second half.
- The Thunder is now a season-high seven games above .500 at 28-21.
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on the win: “I thought our guys at the start of the game came out with good energy. It was a back-to-back game but we didn’t use that as an excuse, which we never do. But I liked it. We played a tough, hard fought defensive game. They made a run. They hit some shots. It was kind of like last night. We didn’t fall apart. We stuck together.”
- Brooks on the Thunder’s frontcourt play: “Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison and Nenad did a tremendous job of battling their bigs. Their bigs are good and they did a great job of rebounding. Nick had 10. Serge had eight and Nenad was 7-for-8 from the field. We had good frontcourt play tonight.”
- Brooks on Russell Westbrook’s game-clinching shot: “That was a great decision on his part. They were worried about KD and he stepped up and hit a 12-foot shot. That’s a shot that he can make.”
- Brooks on the team’s turnovers: “Kevin had the turnovers tonight. Other than that we were fine. We had 18 and KD had eight of them. A lot of KD’s were from driving hard, trying to pick the ball up and make the pass to his teammates. And they did a good job of stripping down. KD, he’s gotten away from turning it over. Hopefully this is just a one game thing.”
- Kevin Durant on his 30-point game: “My teammates did a great job of finding me, so I just try to do my best to finish for them. I’ve got a long ways to go to become the player I want to be, so I’ve got to continue to work hand get better.”
- Durant on beating the Hornets: “I’ve never beaten the Hornets. They’ve been playing well as of late, so it feels good to come into a hostile environment and get the win.”
- Hornets coach Jeff Bower on the game: “I think the story of the game was our inability to get them under control, particularly Westbrook early on in the game.”
BY THE NUMBERS
1: Biggest lead by the Hornets.
2: Games the Thunder is now above the Hornets in the West standings.
7: Games above .500 for the Thunder, a season-high.
8: Turnovers for Kevin Durant, tying a season-high.
12: Biggest lead by the Thunder.
57.5: Percent shooting for OKC.
12,884: Announced attendance inside the New Orleans Arena.