DENVER — When Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka returned to his locker room after Game 3 on Saturday night, he was not swarmed by teammates offering congratulations.
You'd think some might be in order, given what the 21-year-old had just done in a 97-94 victory over the Denver Nuggets inside the Pepsi Center.
Ibaka set single-game career highs in rebounds (16) and made free throws (10), tied career highs in points (22), minutes (39) and free-throw attempts (10) and also blocked four shots to help give the Thunder a 3-0 series lead.
The reason no one inside the OKC locker room poured Gatorade over Ibaka's head was because teammates frequently have seen his flashes of brilliance in practice.
"For my teammates, this was no surprise," Ibaka said as the clock approached midnight on Saturday. "They know I can do it because every day when we practice I go hard. I do that kind of stuff. Maybe for you guys (media) or the fans that's a surprise. But for my teammates, is no surprise."
Center Kendrick Perkins was the only other Thunder player still in the locker room and was seated roughly five feet away. Perkins confirmed he was not surprised by what Ibaka had just done and explained why.
"He's around a great team. He's around great guys who teach him," Perkins said. "I told him when I first got here that he should be the best defensive player on the court at all times. He's got the capability. He's got the talent, and his offense is getting great. You can tell. He's shooting his jumper with confidence. He's making great post moves, and he's rebounding the basketball."
A second-year player from the Republic of Congo, Ibaka averaged 9.9 points and 7.6 rebounds during the regular season. As his steady ascent toward stardom continues, there will come a time when those outside the OKC locker room no longer are surprised by what he achieves.
Take this series, for example. In the eyes of Thunder coach Scott Brooks, what happened with Ibaka in Game 1 was a surprise and what happened in Game 3 was not.
Ibaka shot 1 for 8 from the field and managed just three points in the series opener, missing five shots from his wheelhouse range. Numerous times Brooks has proclaimed Ibaka to be the team's best jump shooter from the 12- to 18-foot range. Ibaka did contribute five rebounds and four blocks that night, however.
OKC team members said they were not concerned Ibaka might have been overwhelmed by the postseason stage on opening night, and they were right. Ibaka enters Monday night's Game 4 with two straight double-doubles, having finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds in Game 2.
That being said, there also is a good chance Ibaka doesn't fully comprehend the magnitude of the NBA playoffs. He didn't watch the playoffs until he was age 16 and playing ball in Spain.
Even when Ibaka did see NBA footage, it wouldn't be until the summertime, two months or so after the fact.
Though Ibaka still speaks choppy English, less and less seems to be getting lost in translation on the basketball court.
No interpreter was needed for Ibaka to realize his team was early in trouble Saturday after Perkins, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed each picked up two fouls in the first quarter.
Ibaka knew the team's focus inside had shifted to him.
"The sky's the limit for him,'' All-Star Kevin Durant said.
Ibaka's progress will continue to be under the watchful eye of others.
"I'm watching how he works," Perkins said. "I'm watching his work ethic, watching how he listens and how he's observing everybody. So it doesn't surprise me when he stepped up big like he did."
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