Back in the Congo, Serge Ibaka played soccer, just like most every kid in Africa. Ibaka was a goalkeeper.
Different continent. Different decade. Different sport. Different lifestyle. But Ibaka still plays goalkeeper. He minds the net of Thunder games, and opponents know to tread lightly when approaching the basket.
Ibaka is a good scorer, a consistent rebounder and a solid post defender. But he protects the rim like few in NBA history. Ibaka has averaged 2.6 blocked shots per game in his five seasons. Only seven players ever have averaged more for their careers – Mark Eaton, Manute Bol, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Elmore Smith, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.
That’s strong company to keep.
“You can chart that he blocks three or four shots per game,” said teammate Derek Fisher. “But he probably changes two or three times as many as he actually blocks.”
Like Saturday night in Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series against Memphis. The Grizzlies survive on the production of big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and the drives of point guard Mike Conley. But Ibaka blocked four shots and made the paint so treacherous that the Grizzlies’ interior players combined to make just 14 of 43 shots.
Conley’s quick darts into the lane and the bull rushes of Randolph and Gasol are tempered by the knowledge that Ibaka has impeccable timing at crossing the paint for a backside block.
And as we saw Saturday night, when the Thunder won 100-86, Ibaka’s rejections ignite his teammates and the OKC crowd as much as a thundering dunk.
“He makes it hard for us not to, because he’s as emotional as anyone after a great block, as he should be,” Fisher said. “They are game-changing plays. The energy created not just within our team but within the arena is humongous for us when we’re here on our home court. I don’t know if he gets enough credit for the way he changes the game for us as a team.”
A team as high-profile as the Thunder has been in recent years generally have overrated players. But Ibaka is the other way. He’s underrated, lost in the glare of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
“I’ve been in that position, not as talented as Serge, but on a team where the star power is so huge,” Fisher said of the Lakers from a decade past. “Shaq, Kobe and then there’s everybody else. Very similar here. There’s Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, then everybody else.
“So when you have great players like that on your team, there’s only so much time to talk, only so many seconds on the interviews, only so many words in the newspapers that you can put in there.
“Somebody’s going to get left out. I think Serge gets left out a lot, in terms of the impact he has on our group. And it’s not always statistical.”
Despite occasional lapses, especially on the perimeter, the Thunder defense has remained elite, despite tons of missed games by defensive specialists Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. The one constant? Ibaka. Always a threat to swat an opponent’s drive.
That’s unseen value. Every time an opponent passes out or dribbles back or loses aggression, that’s hidden value. That’s an undocumented but absolute benefit.
Ibaka makes $12.25 million a year. He comes cheap. He can’t replaced. Literally. There is no one in the NBA with his skill set, other than Anthony Davis, a budding superstar.
“To know that you have that security blanket back there if you do get beat out on the perimeter, you can’t take that for granted,” Fisher said. “Serge is the best in the business at doing it. He’s been that way for the last three or four years. I don’t think that’s going to change. He takes a lot of pride in it. I think we should appreciate having him here with our group.”
Everyone associated with Thunder basketball should appreciate the keeper of the goal.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.