As the All-Star selections neared earlier this season, some of Serge Ibaka’s teammates made a push for the improved power forward to make the cut.
To no avail.
As the regular season drew to a close the past few years, some of those same teammates — and others across the league — made an even louder push for Ibaka to win Defensive Player of the Year.
Again, to no avail. Arguably the league’s best shot-blocker and one of its best pick-and-pop big men received neither distinction. Despite his unique and impactful skill set, Ibaka remains in that second NBA tier — considered somewhere between good and great.
But over the next couple weeks, the stage is set for Ibaka to change opinions.
With the Clippers coming to town on Monday night for the start of an intriguing second-round tilt, Ibaka’s matchup with Sooner legend and Clippers superstar Blake Griffin is front and center.
Scott Brooks has already tried to deflect responsibility, saying the assignment of guarding Griffin will be a “team effort.” But in reality, it’ll likely fall primarily and almost exclusively to Ibaka. Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins will get a few cracks. But if he stays out of foul trouble, Ibaka is clearly the best option.
Griffin is too quick for the others and too powerful for nearly every fleet-footed big man in the league. But with Ibaka, a well-built high-flyer, Griffin is staring at the rare human who is in his same athletic stratosphere.
“(Ibaka) can guard (Griffin) one on one,” Charles Barkley said on TNT on Saturday night. “He’s the only power forward in this league that’s physically strong enough and athletic enough to bang with Blake.”
The two have had their fair share of battles — and after-the-whistle tussles — in the past, but this’ll be their first postseason meeting. Each will get a batch of games and plenty of days to study and adjust to the other, to learn from mistakes and try to exploit weaknesses.
Griffin has the clear edge. He’s the more polished player. And in 15 previous meetings, he has averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds to Ibaka’s 13 and 7.
But Griffin’s usage rate is much higher. He’s going to get more shots and points than Ibaka, as well as a ton more plays run through him. It’ll be Serge’s assignment to make life hard on him.
“That, to me, is a wash,” Barkley said. “Blake can play a little bit better than Ibaka, but he can’t go out and get 35 a night.”
Widely known as a weak-side menace, Ibaka has compiled a highlight reel of blocked shots that few have matched over the past couple decades. He’s an eraser of mistakes.
But this series, more than any other he’s competed in, will test the development of his one-on-one post defense. It has been questioned in the past, pinned up as the biggest hole in Ibaka’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy.
But it’s something he has improved upon. And the last series against Memphis was a great example. With Kendrick Perkins tasked with slowing Zach Randolph, Ibaka was forced to contend with Marc Gasol, the skilled 7-foot-1 bruiser, in the post.
Ibaka held his own, forcing tough shots and even blocking a few right back in Gasol’s face.
“He’s using his physicality a lot (more), using his length, does a great job of knowing his opponents,” Kevin Durant said. “(But) Blake is a load, everybody knows that.”
A load that Ibaka must contend with over the next couple weeks.
His objective: Make Griffin inefficient on one end and force him to defend on the other. Do that consistently and maybe Ibaka will start to earn greater national buzz.