“I don't watch ESPN, CNN, nothing,” Ibaka said, brushing off the praise. “Because one day they're going to talk about you, the next day they're going to forget everything about you.”
But that day doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon for the emerging 24-year-old. The NBA’s postseason – or, really, any big stage in a well-followed sport – has a way of breeding celebrated stars. Millions of eyes are watching a stage shared by few. The most intriguing storylines are dissected and rehashed. Eulogized players have their signature moments.
And that’s what Ibaka turned in on Sunday night. He’s the unheralded rookie from the Congo, the athletic leaper with a raw skill set, the improving pick-and-pop jumpshooter with an unmatched work ethic and the defensive-minded big man who the Thunder chose over James Harden. He’s the All-Star snub who averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds on a 59-win team, the third cornerstone on a championship contender — yet he culminated a quiet yet remarkable five-year ascent on Sunday with a performance for the ages.
“One Thunder fan called you the MVP,” a reporter blurted out toward Ibaka at the end of his crowded interview on Monday afternoon.
“Really?” a bashful Ibaka asked back. “No, Kevin is the real MVP. I’m just a helper.”
Two weeks ago, Ibaka might have been able to convince some of that argument. But not anymore. Far more than “just a helper”, Ibaka has never been more appreciated. His name has never been more recognizable. The spotlight around him has never been brighter.
Better start getting used to it.