But through his recent play, Ibaka is proving why he was deemed such a pivotal piece.
Much of Ibaka's effectiveness in this recent stretch has come without him being the focal point. He's simply hitting open shots when the ball is swung to him, catching drop-off passes and finishing with layups or dunks, running the floor for transition points and gobbling up offensive rebounds and getting putbacks.
Harden, on the other hand, would have needed the ball to be most effective, which meant Durant or Russell Westbrook would have had it in their hands less in order for Harden excel.
“I think he's learning that he don't have to do much,” Westbrook said. “He can just keep his spacing and catch and shoot the ball.”
Ibaka can thank Westbrook for that. The return of the Thunder's All-Star point guard has been critical to Ibaka's success, as Westbrook has set up Ibaka with either wide-open jumpers out of the pick-and-pop or point blank opportunities on drives and dishes.
Westbrook's impact can most readily be seen in Ibaka's shooting percentage. In 11 games without Westbrook, including nine playoff games last year, Ibaka shot 37 percent. In his past 11 games with Westbrook, Ibaka shot 61 percent.
“Russell does a great job of demanding a lot of attention on him, and he frees up Serge a lot,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “A lot of Russell's assists are probably to Serge, and they always will be because anytime you run a pick-and-roll, you have to put two guys on Russell. And so it helps Serge out to get open jump shots.”
Ibaka's second best five-game stretch came from New Year's Eve last year through Jan. 7. He averaged 18 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots while shooting 60.3 percent in that window.
Similar numbers. Only now, Ibaka looks like a different player.
“I think he's just playing with more comfort,” Westbrook said. “He's got some years underneath his belt, and now he knows what his job is and what he needs to do for us to win.”