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.