The Thunder needed a stop. The game and Oklahoma City’s shot at some early season momentum depended on it.
Kevin Durant had just drained a gorgeous step-back jumper over Rudy Gay as the shot clock raced to zero last Wednesday at Memphis. It gave the Thunder a four-point lead with 35.4 ticks remaining.
After 12 seconds of stellar defense on the ensuing Grizzlies possession, Serge Ibaka stepped up and saved Durant from an ill-advised gamble. When Gay got by a reaching Durant, it was Ibaka who soared in from the weak side to swat Gay’s lefty layup attempt to the fans seated in the front row.
Ibaka flexed his muscles. He walked over to the Thunder’s bench. He high-fived teammate Lazar Hayward.
“He likes to swat it to the second row and pose after,” said Thabo Sefolosha.
There was one problem. The Grizzlies got the ball back.
With 21.2 seconds left to play, the Grizzlies inbounded the ball with nine seconds still showing on the shot clock, plenty of time to cut the deficit in half or to a single point with a 3. Fortunately for the Thunder, a 3-point try by Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo rimmed out. Ibaka controlled the board and was fouled with 13.2 remaining. The Thunder went on to notch a narrow 98-95 win and move to 3-0.
That sequence, though, illustrated a troubling pattern with Ibaka’s swats — they’re going back into the other team’s hands and allowing opponents second chances.
For Ibaka, the third-year forward whose highlight-worthy rejections have led to some affectionately referring to him as I-Blocka, maintaining possession on big-time blocks is a technique that still needs to be sharpened.
“It looks good and it’s cool,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of Ibaka’s forceful swats. “But (teams) get the ball back, usually with time on the clock.”
Ibaka has registered 14 blocks this season, which could be a topic in and of itself. That’s a two-block-per-game average, which is good for seventh in the league but is 0.41 less than Ibaka averaged a year ago.
Of Ibaka’s 14 blocks, seven have stayed with the opposing team. Three of those seven ultimately resulted in scores, or second-chance points.
Brooks and teammates have talked to Ibaka about controlling blocks better. They’ve gotten in his ear about blocking shots to a teammate or, at the very least, keeping the rejections inbounds.
“He understands,” Sefolosha said, “and slowly but surely he’ll get to it. It’s one of those things where he gets in the air and gives it all he’s got.”
A 50-percent success rate in the shot-blocking department isn’t the worst thing ever. In fact, you probably could consider it pretty good. Seven of Ibaka’s swats have been recovered by the Thunder and four of those ultimately resulted in baskets for Oklahoma City at the other end. In other words, Ibaka’s shot-blocking has directly led to a 16-point swing for the Thunder this season.
Although slightly less significant, Ibaka’s impact is felt even in some of the blocks that remain with the opposing team. When teams came up empty on four of those seven second chances, Ibaka helped take points off the board even if teams got another crack at scoring.
But improvement still is needed at blocking shots with better purpose.
“Serge is one of the best shot blockers and we need him to keep going at it and protecting the paint,” Brooks said. “He does other things and he does them well. But I think blocking shots, you need to keep it in bounds. I think it’s a knack. You have to be able to get there and we all know he can get to the ball. He needs more experience and that will come.”
Ibaka said controlling the ball is difficult at times because there are times when he’s unsure if he will block it.
‘Sometimes you just come for intimidation and then the ball catches your hand,” Ibaka said. “So it’s something you don’t control. But it’s important sometimes for it to stay on the court.”
Ibaka added that the trajectory of the ball is important in keeping blocks in play. When a shot is strong, Ibaka said, he has to attack hard and the ball then goes out. But when a shot is high-arching, that’s when Ibaka can slow down and get his timing down to better control it.
But blocking the ball into the fifth row has value, too. It can pump life into Ibaka, his teammates and the crowd.
“I know that’s what my team needs, that energy,” Ibaka said. “When I block shots like that and the crowd gets excited, it makes not just my teammates excited but myself too.”