MILWAUKEE — Over the past 10 days, Serge Ibaka has strung together the best five-game stretch of his career.
He's averaged 18.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots while shooting 68.4 percent from the field.
The only thing that could cool his current hot streak was the officials. A crew working the Thunder-Clippers game on Wednesday ejected him, perhaps wrongfully, seconds before halftime following a brief shoving match. His dismissal limited Ibaka to 13 points and two rebounds in 16 minutes.
That just makes Ibaka's statistics in the last five more impressive.
Over that span, Ibaka has posted three double-doubles and registered two games of at least 25 points, including a career-high 27 points Thursday at Golden State.
“He's been doing well because he's letting the game come to him,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant.
“He's just playing off of everybody else, and when he does that, he's unstoppable.”
Or reliable at the very least, which is all the Thunder truly needs.
After shooting just 27.5 percent and failing to score in double digits in his first three games, Ibaka appears to be figuring out how to be a consistent force. More importantly, the production he's given the Thunder in these past five games has provided a reason to believe Ibaka can blossom into the third scorer the Thunder sought and sorely needed coming into this season.
“I'm getting my rhythm back right now, and I will just keep playing the way I've been playing the last couple of games,” said Ibaka, adding that he had to remain focused and patient during his slow start. “I know I've been working hard all summer, and I was thinking one day, all my work I did will pay off. And right now, it's starting to pay off.”
So is the Thunder's investment.
Last summer, Ibaka was rewarded with a four-year, $49 million contract extension that kicked in this season. The deal was criticized by some from the start, and the skeptics multiplied when James Harden was traded. Many assumed that by signing Ibaka first, the Thunder threw away a chance at retaining Harden. That never was the case, as the team tried to sign both players.
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.”