The grainy video shot inside a nearly empty practice gym is only 17 seconds long, but in that short time, you can see the impact that last year’s playoff series against Memphis had on Serge Ibaka.
The Oklahoma City big man catches a basketball with his back to the basket, dribbles to his right, then to his left toward the basket. He ball fakes twice and hooks the ball smoothly toward the goal.
Then he does it again. Same catch. Same dribbles. Same fakes.
The video ends there, but right before it cuts off, everyone is resetting to do it all again. And again. And again.
As the NBA Playoffs begin Saturday, a familiar foe returns to face the Thunder. The Grizzlies are back. They are still gritty. They are still grinding.
And last year when they faced the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs, no one got ground down more than Ibaka. He was his rock-solid self even though he faced the stiffest of challenges on the defensive end, but on the offensive end, he shot only 37.7 percent from the floor. That was nearly 20 percentage points lower than his regular-season average.
He averaged 12.6 points a game in the series, which wasn’t far off his season average, but in Russell Westbrook’s absence, the Thunder needed more from Ibaka.
The opportunities were there, but the production was not.
“It was big for me,” Ibaka said of that playoff series’ impact. “Russ was not there. It was something new to me in the offense, something I didn’t really anticipate.”
That shaped his offseason, shaped the player he’s become. Ironically, it’s the Grizzlies coming back to town for another go around, and Ibaka is more ready than ever to take on their talented bigs, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
In another basketball realm, Ibaka and Gasol are teammates. Since Ibaka became a naturalized citizen of Spain a few years ago, he has played alongside Gasol and his older brother, Pau, on the Spanish national team. They even won Olympic silver together a couple years ago.
There’s enough of a bond between them that Ibaka went to dinner with Pau when the Thunder played the Lakers earlier this season in Los Angeles, sharing the encounter for the world to see on Instagram.
But starting Saturday, Ibaka and Marc Gasol will be trying to best each other.
Gasol definitely got the better of that matchup during the playoffs last season. While he and Randolph switched off defensively on Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Memphis bigs often helped each other and doubled up when Ibaka had the ball. Perk was on the court for his defense, and Gasol and Randolph knew that. That meant they could gang up on Ibaka when he got the ball.
The Thunder organization made offensive development the focus of Ibaka’s offseason work. He spent much of the summer in Las Vegas working with his longtime trainer Joe Abunassar. That’s where that grainy video came from. Abunassar and his bunch at Impact worked relentlessly on Ibaka’s offensive skills.
The result has been more consistency from 10 to 19 feet. He is shooting close to 50 percent from that area, which is up nearly 10 percentage points from early in his career. And he’s shooting a better percentage despite shooting more shots.
“His mid-range game is really, really good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s been good for a while, but he’s taken his shot out to the three-point line.”
Ibaka is also better on the pick and roll and the pick and pop. Part of that is an ever-improving chemistry with Westbrook and Kevin Durant, part of it is his ability to get separation in those coverages, and part of it is his improved shooting.
“Those are the areas we worked out throughout the year with him,” Brooks said. “He’s really done a good job of coming back this year and being much better all-around offensively.”
Ibaka said, “The hardest thing in this league is to be (consistent) every night. You’ve got some people that can have 20 points, the next day they have two points. Doing it consistently … that is going to make a difference.”
Ibaka is still a work in progress. There is an occasional night when he scores less than 10 points, but those games are rarer than ever before.
There’s a chance Ibaka would’ve worked to improve his offense even if he hadn’t struggled last year against the Grizzlies. Maybe this was in the works. Maybe this was always the plan. But the motivation was kicked into high gear by what Gasol, Randolph and Co. did last spring.
“Changed my focus,” Ibaka said. “I really focused on my offense just to put myself in a position where when my team is going to need my offense, I’m going to be ready to respond, you know?”
By the time this series is over, we may all know just how much that last series transformed Ibaka.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.