The throng of reporters was big, maybe larger than it’s ever been for a post-practice availability at the Thunder’s facility.
And everyone was crowded around Kevin Durant, trying to snatch a quick soundbite or opinion from the NBA’s MVP on his Western Conference Finals duel with the San Antonio Spurs.
But right as Durant began his interview, a Thunder PR staffer escorted a limping Serge Ibaka to an adjacent spot 20 feet away, announcing that the power forward was available for interviews.
Cue the avalanche. Durant suddenly became an afterthought. A media flood descended upon Ibaka, abandoning one of the league’s brightest superstars for a chance to chat with its breakout star.
“Absolutely,” a wide-eyed Ibaka said when asked if he was surprised by all the attention. “Yes, of course.”
Despite his underrated importance to the Thunder and steady growth the past five seasons, Ibaka has remained under the radar. On a team with an international icon like Durant and a polarizing force like Russell Westbrook, the spotlight can be crowded. Attention is hard to come by.
But when you’ve just had a week like Serge Ibaka’s, it’s impossible to avoid.
It started back in San Antonio, with an injured Ibaka nowhere to be seen and not expected to emerge, leaving a shellshocked Thunder team to get blasted in two games, revealing how vital its defensive anchor truly was. Then it culminated on Sunday night, when a hobbled Ibaka had his Willis Reed moment and then some – drilling his first four shots in a legendary first quarter frenzy and then continuing his strong play for 30 minutes, leading a series-altering win despite a noticeable limp on that bad left calf.
Analyst Charles Barkley called it one of the best performances he’d ever seen. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich labeled Ibaka the best defensive player on the planet. Praise came flooding in from far and wide. Local adoration for the already beloved Ibaka reached an all-time high. His national profile and approval rating spiked overnight, thanks to a gutsy and inspirational showing.
“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.