One hails from the Republic of Congo. The other from right here in Oklahoma City.
One played his formative ball in Europe. The other starred 20 minutes down the road at the University of Oklahoma.
One has shed the label of foreigner, endearing himself to the Thunder faithful. The other has become a local NBA villain, transforming into the face of a cross-country rival.
It’s Serge Ibaka verse Blake Griffin. The adopted son against the forgotten one.
And it’s one of the league’s most intriguing head-to-head matchups, with the latest chapter in this wacky tale of sports loyalty set for Thursday night in OKC, when the Clippers visit the Thunder.
“They have that budding rivalry,” said Thunder forward Ryan Gomes, who played with Griffin for two years in Los Angeles. “They’re both at that power forward. Blake is from Oklahoma and Serge plays in Oklahoma. So there’s a little bad blood between them.”
Bad blood that continues to boil over every time they meet.
The latest example came last Wednesday in Los Angeles, when the duo got tangled up after a collision in the paint.
Griffin hooked Ibaka’s arm in a strange position, Ibaka threw him off, Matt Barnes got involved and a brief shoving match ensued. When tempers tamed, Griffin was given a technical and Ibaka was ejected, a controversial decision that changed the complexion of the game.
But despite the questionable sanctions, given the participants, it only increases the intrigue and adds to their growing history.
“Blake is a very aggressive player around the basket,” TNT NBA analyst Steve Kerr explained. “Serge takes great pride in his defense and doesn’t want to give up any dunks. And so they frequently meet in the paint in a situation where they’re going right at each other.”
Last January in Los Angeles, as Ibaka attempted to closely defend Griffin in the post, Griffin tried a face-up move, which inadvertently put Ibaka in a strange-looking headlock. Then two months later, as they were grappling for rebounding position, Ibaka nailed Griffin with a not so inadvertent looking shot to groin area.
It earned Ibaka a flagrant and some brief ire from the NBA world.
“I probably would have smacked him in the mouth,” Kobe Bryant said at the time.
But this budding rivalry has become about much more than these recurring tussles.
The two 24-year-olds, both locked into lucrative long-term deals, play crucial and competing interior roles for a pair of Western Conference heavyweights.
And as both continue to raise their level of play – Griffin is averaging 22.9 points and 10.9 rebounds, Ibaka 14.0 and 10.5 – the impact of their individual matchup will hold more weight.
And the drama between these two will only build.
“As teams, I don’t know if (the rivalry) is there yet," Gomes said. "But as individuals, (it is).”
And we already know which side Oklahoma City is taking. Hint: It's not for the hometown kid.
Serge Ibaka vs Blake Griffin: Tale of the tape
As a first overall pick, Blake Griffin entered the league with monster expectations.
As an international draft and stash, Serge Ibaka arrived in the NBA as a relative unknown.
But a half-decade into their careers, and nearly a quarter-century into their lives, the rival duo collides at a relatively similar point.
Let’s look at the tale of the tape:
To reach their individual ceilings, both must make vast improvements in this key area. But Blake is clearly the more polished of the two. He’s comfortable on the low block, showing an ability to score, pass and make the right read. At times, you can run an offense through him. At this point, you can’t say the same about Ibaka. Edge: Griffin
Quietly, Ibaka has become one of the best shooting big man in the league. He’s deadly from 10 to 16 feet (55 percent in that range last season) and steady all the way out to the three. Blake, meanwhile, shot 36 percent in that 10 to 16 foot range last season and looks uncomfortable any deeper than that. Getting better, but still not near Serge. Edge: Ibaka
Ibaka has made a concerted effort to become a more prolific rebounder this season and you can see the tangible difference. He’s averaging 10.5 boards through 10 games, nearly three more than his career-high. But Griffin has been at that double-digit level since the day he set foot in the league. For his career, he averages 10.4. Just comes naturally to him. Edge: Griffin
Ibaka has led the NBA in blocks for two consecutive seasons, using his lanky 7-foot-4 wingspan to erase shots. But Griffin, with far less length (6-foot-11 wingspan, small for a big), has had trouble protecting the rim. He has never averaged more than 0.7 blocks per game. And that seems like an unfixable flaw. Edge: Ibaka
At this point, and likely down the road, Griffin will be viewed as the better player. And that’s fair. He has a higher ceiling and is more productive now. But I think the gap is closer than people believe. And I’m not sure the Thunder, who need rim protection and secondary scoring more than another shot-commanding star, would trade one for the other. Edge: Griffin
What they're saying
TNT NBA analyst Steve Kerr on Ibaka…
-"I think he has the chance to be elite defensively. (But) offensively, it’s tough to really see him develop into a star. He’s got a nice jump shot, but he doesn’t really have a feel."
-"He’s not a passer, he’s not the kind of guy with a low post game. So you don’t fear him. He’s really a complementary player on offense. But he’s good, he’s just not great. And I don’t expect him to be great offensively. I think we would have already seen the development of his game by this point.”
"I look at big man in the scope of their offensive potential down the road. Can they get on the low block and can they command a double-team? And since (Ibaka) can’t really do either, I think he’s just going to be a complementary jump shooter off of Westbrook and Durant."
Kerr on Griffin...
-"Blake has more potential than Ibaka as an offensive weapon because he is a really good passer and you can run an offense through him."
-"(The Clippers) have to be able to throw him the ball and get baskets late in playoff games. Very few players can do that, where you can count on them to score in very tough playoff games. He’s not there yet, but I know he’s working at it and Doc is working with them."
-"He’s not a guy who you think of in switching pick and rolls and being really good at staying in front of people. He’s not bad, but he’s not (Anderson) Varajao and he’s not (Joakim) Noah. He’s solid defensively, but he’s not a great rim protector. And he’s not a guy with the potential to be dominant because of the lack of length. And that’s where Serge can be so good and is so good at times."
Former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst George Karl on Ibaka...
-"I think with the makeup of Oklahoma City, he’s probably between (star and complementary piece). He’s going to have to be third fiddle. Westbrook and Durant are top-10 players. So the responsibility, the percentage of responsibility, is never going to be grandiose to the point where he can become a superstar or a super, super player. I think he’s going to be a player that can become a major part of team."
-"If he would choose to become a leading man or leading player on a bad team right now, which I would not recommend, to play for stardom rather than championships. I think it would be an interesting experiment, where there’s a part of me that thinks he could make it and a part of me that probably thinks he would fail."
Denver coach Brian Shaw on Ibaka's potential All-Star candidacy...
"He’s not the dynamic type star player who you typically think of as an All-Star. But as coaches, we understand the value of what he brings to his team and the contribution that he makes toward his team being a winning team. So I don’t think that’ll be taken lightly when that comes to voting."
Ryan Gomes on Ibaka...
"I think he’s getting to that elite level. I think he’s a little bit underrated…Now he’s that third guy. You always got to have those two superstars and those other guys who want to be a superstar and their game is at that level. And I think Serge’s game is there and I think he’s gonna show it. Over the last five or six games, he’s been phenomenal for us on both ends of the floor."
Ryan Gomes on Griffin...
"I think Blake has improved as the year’s have gone, especially shooting from the outside. Of course he’s not Dirk Nowitzki yet, but you got to honor him more than you did earlier in his career. When I was with him in LA, it was just a lot of paint catches, a lot of paint dunks, easy layups, transition points. But as his game evolves, he got better at making the jump shot."
Ryan Gomes on the comparison between the two...
"Athleticism-wise, they’re about the same but different. Serge is more defensively athletic, but Blake is more in the air, turn, do 360-layups, stuff like that. As far as games, I think they’re similar. They both rebound the basketball at a high rate. Serge is better defensively and offensively he can step out and hit his shot more efficiently than Blake can."