As the Thunder continues its quest to reinvent itself in the wake of its highly scrutinized shake-up, two players are becoming bigger weapons on the offensive end.
Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor.
In each of the last two games, both have shown more assertiveness and, as a result, provided the Thunder with much better balance both in the starting lineup and on the bench.
On Friday night, Ibaka scored a career-high 25 points to lead the Thunder to a routine 105-94 victory over a winless Detroit team playing the fifth of six straight road games. Maynor added 13 points off the bench.
The duo made 14 of 19 shots, which helped the Thunder shake off a slow start and ultimately shoot a season-high 53.5 percent from the floor.
It was the first time in Ibaka's career that he's had back-to-back 20-plus-point games. One night earlier, he scored 21 in a six-point win at Chicago. Against the Pistons, his offense was very much needed to pick up the slack of Russell Westbrook, who struggled with his shot for the second straight night before finishing with 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting.
More importantly, Ibaka's continued growth as a scorer is supplying the Thunder's first unit with that critical third threat it has lacked since Jeff Green was traded to Boston. After scoring just 11 points on 5-for-18 shooting in the season's first two games, Ibaka has averaged 19.3 points on 67.4 percent shooting over the past four contests.
“Serge played really inspired basketball on both ends,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Ibaka added seven rebounds and blocked three shots while making nine of 13 shots. For the second time in as many nights, Ibaka benefited from a fast start, perhaps a sign of how the Thunder can keep his scoring up. Ibaka scored the Thunder's first four points and had six by the end of the opening quarter.
Most impressive is how Ibaka is scoring within the flow of the offense.
“It's not like we're just force-feeding him, throwing it down in the post and just saying ‘Serge, get a basket,'” said Kevin Durant, who scored 25 points to share team-high honors with Ibaka. “He's playing off of guys … and making that jump shot and just loosening up the offense for everybody else as the game goes along. He's getting more opportunities this year.”
What Ibaka is doing for the first string, Maynor is beginning to muster for the second.
Admittedly less assertive through the first three games while trying to integrate Kevin Martin, Maynor is now taken it upon himself more to provide scoring punch in the second unit. Similar to Ibaka, Maynor has increased his production over the past three games, averaging 10.7 points on 10-for-19 shooting (53 percent) after netting only three points per game on 4-for-11 shooting (37 percent) in the first three contests.
The turning point perhaps can be credited to a conversation Brooks had with his reserve point guard following a scoreless 12-minute performance in that stunner at home against Atlanta.
“I said: ‘We just have to be more aggressive, Eric. You can't just expect it to come to you and just play your minutes as if things are just going to work out. You've got to make things work out,'” Brooks said. “And I thought he's done a good job with that. He's been attacking, he's been taking his shot … and each game now he seems to be a little more comfortable.”
The Thunder seems to be settling in, too.
Oklahoma City had a season-low 17 turnovers and registered 21 assists, the fourth straight game that the Thunder has toppled 20 assists.
Defensively, the Thunder held the Pistons to 41.4 percent. But there clearly is room for improvement, as Brooks called the second half effort average after the Thunder held the Pistons to 38.6 percent shooting in the first half. Detroit scored 52 points on 44.2 percent shooting in the final 24 minutes and grabbed 12 of its opponent season-high 16 offensive rebounds after the break.
“We could be a lot better,” said Durant. “I'm never satisfied. It's a long season, and it's an up-and-down season, I know. But we could be a lot better. We just got to find a way to do it for 48 minutes as far as the energy is concerned.”