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OKC Thunder: Examining the budding rivalry between Serge Ibaka and Blake Griffin

Oklahoma City's adopted son against its forgotten one. Serge Ibaka vs. Blake Griffin. One of the league’s most intriguing head-to-head matchups is set for another chapter on Thursday night in OKC, when the Clippers visit the Thunder. Here's a comprehensive look at their history.
by Anthony Slater Modified: November 20, 2013 at 10:39 pm •  Published: November 20, 2013

One hails from the Republic of Congo. The other from right here in Oklahoma City.

One played his formative ball in Europe. The other starred 20 minutes down the road at the University of Oklahoma.

One has shed the label of foreigner, endearing himself to the Thunder faithful. The other has become a local NBA villain, transforming into the face of a cross-country rival.

It’s Serge Ibaka verse Blake Griffin. The adopted son against the forgotten one.

And it’s one of the league’s most intriguing head-to-head matchups, with the latest chapter in this wacky tale of sports loyalty set for Thursday night in OKC, when the Clippers visit the Thunder.

“They have that budding rivalry,” said Thunder forward Ryan Gomes, who played with Griffin for two years in Los Angeles. “They’re both at that power forward. Blake is from Oklahoma and Serge plays in Oklahoma. So there’s a little bad blood between them.”

Bad blood that continues to boil over every time they meet.

The latest example came last Wednesday in Los Angeles, when the duo got tangled up after a collision in the paint.

Griffin hooked Ibaka’s arm in a strange position, Ibaka threw him off, Matt Barnes got involved and a brief shoving match ensued. When tempers tamed, Griffin was given a technical and Ibaka was ejected, a controversial decision that changed the complexion of the game.

But despite the questionable sanctions, given the participants, it only increases the intrigue and adds to their growing history.

“Blake is a very aggressive player around the basket,” TNT NBA analyst Steve Kerr explained. “Serge takes great pride in his defense and doesn’t want to give up any dunks. And so they frequently meet in the paint in a situation where they’re going right at each other.”

In 2011, Ibaka swatted a Griffin dunk attempt. In 2012, Griffin returned the favor with a ferocious slam on Ibaka’s head. Then in 2013, things got weird.

Last January in Los Angeles, as Ibaka attempted to closely defend Griffin in the post, Griffin tried a face-up move, which inadvertently put Ibaka in a strange-looking headlock. Then two months later, as they were grappling for rebounding position, Ibaka nailed Griffin with a not so inadvertent looking shot to groin area.

It earned Ibaka a flagrant and some brief ire from the NBA world.

“I probably would have smacked him in the mouth,” Kobe Bryant said at the time.

But this budding rivalry has become about much more than these recurring tussles.

The two 24-year-olds, both locked into lucrative long-term deals, play crucial and competing interior roles for a pair of Western Conference heavyweights.

And as both continue to raise their level of play – Griffin is averaging 22.9 points and 10.9 rebounds, Ibaka 14.0 and 10.5 – the impact of their individual matchup will hold more weight.

And the drama between these two will only build.

“As teams, I don’t know if (the rivalry) is there yet," Gomes said. "But as individuals, (it is).”

And we already know which side Oklahoma City is taking. Hint: It's not for the hometown kid.

Serge Ibaka vs Blake Griffin: Tale of the tape

As a first overall pick, Blake Griffin entered the league with monster expectations.

As an international draft and stash, Serge Ibaka arrived in the NBA as a relative unknown.

But a half-decade into their careers, and nearly a quarter-century into their lives, the rival duo collides at a relatively similar point.

Let’s look at the tale of the tape:

Interior offense

To reach their individual ceilings, both must make vast improvements in this key area. But Blake is clearly the more polished of the two. He’s comfortable on the low block, showing an ability to score, pass and make the right read. At times, you can run an offense through him. At this point, you can’t say the same about Ibaka. Edge: Griffin

Outside shooting

Quietly, Ibaka has become one of the best shooting big man in the league. He’s deadly from 10 to 16 feet (55 percent in that range last season) and steady all the way out to the three. Blake, meanwhile, shot 36 percent in that 10 to 16 foot range last season and looks uncomfortable any deeper than that. Getting better, but still not near Serge. Edge: Ibaka

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by Anthony Slater
Thunder Beat Writer
Anthony Slater started on the Thunder beat in the summer of 2013, joining after two years as's lead sports blogger and web editor. A native Californian, Slater attended Sonoma State for two years before transferring to Oklahoma State in...
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