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OKC Thunder: Serge Ibaka can change the momentum back to Thunder

In the first three games of this series, Ibaka was sensational. But the last two contests, Ibaka has regressed. Oklahoma City needs him to be sensational again to put away Rockets.
by Darnell Mayberry Published: May 2, 2013

HOUSTON — Talent aside, the most sizable advantage the Thunder had entering this series with the Houston Rockets was its size.

Yet in three of the five games, Oklahoma City has been outworked and outclassed from in close.

It's become a startling reality for the defending Western Conference champion and top-seeded Thunder, and one that now has Houston a win shy of tying this series and wrestling away complete command of this matchup.

Oklahoma City enters Friday night's Game 6 at a crossroad. After two straight losses, it's become clear that the Thunder's big lineup is neither able to defend the Rockets on the perimeter nor punish them in the paint. The small unit, meanwhile, has struggled at times to score while also being plagued by defensive lapses.

There is one player, though, who has what it takes to turn the tide.

Serge Ibaka.

In the first three games of this series Ibaka was sensational. The power forward averaged 15.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots. He shot 61.3 percent from the field. The Thunder won all three of those games.

But in the last two contests, Ibaka has regressed. He's averaged 11 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots while shooting 45 percent from the field.

Ibaka's inability to take advantage of a Rockets lineup that often lives with shooting guard James Harden defending him in the post has been most detrimental. It's a matchup the Thunder, at least on paper, should be able to exploit.

“Serge is a lot bigger than me and stronger than me,” Harden said. “But I just have to play him aggressive.”

Harden continued, confessing in the next breath that it's a matchup the Rockets actually prefer.

“If the ball is in his hands that means Kevin (Durant) doesn't have the ball,” Harden said. “So we're going to live with that all series, him trying to make plays and post me up.”

Each time Ibaka fails the Rockets have no reason to not continue focusing all their defensive attention on Durant. But each time Ibaka succeeds, the Rockets will have no choice but to counter by inserting an additional big man or doubling down, which would free up shooters and driving lanes for Durant and others.

It's a chess match, and the Rockets currently have the Thunder in check.

The question now is how can things change?

Ibaka is not a post-up player. It's not his strength, and the Thunder has wisely resisted the temptation of force-feeding Ibaka on the low block. Despite showing tremendous strides in his offensive game, Ibaka still struggles to catch the ball cleanly and is still snake-bitten by turnovers. His passing skills out of the post, meanwhile, are lacking, which prevents him from really making defenses pay.

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by Darnell Mayberry
Assist Editor/ NBA Coordinator
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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