In the first half of the first quarter of his first game back from a calf injury, Serge Ibaka rose up and tossed away a Tim Duncan short hook.
But the ball went right back to the Spurs, who swung it around the perimeter and found Danny Green with an open lane to the hoop. Green drove into the teeth of OKC’s defense, spotted Ibaka closing and errantly flung a moonshot finger roll that clanged off the backboard and the side rim.
Statement made. Ibaka was officially back, doing what he’s paid to do: Block shots, alter others, patrol the paint and shield the rim.
And with its defensive anchor back in the fold, the Thunder was able to unleash its scariest and most overlooked team-wide skill — interior basket protection.
In sports, offense typically garners the most attention. With the Thunder’s personnel, that’s particularly true.
Russell Westbrook is a whirlwind attacker and a nightmare to plan against. Kevin Durant is as silky as they’ve ever come, a near 7-footer blessed with a dead-eye jumper and the handle of a shooting guard. But on those rainy offensive days — when Westbrook is out of control or Durant is struggling to find his rhythm — this team’s fallback has always been its underrated defense.
And that is fueled by a back line that acts like a brick wall.
Ibaka is the best shot-blocker in the league. But the Thunder’s roster is filled with other capable goaltenders who are unafraid to challenge at the rim.
In these playoffs, Ibaka’s 36 blocks are the most in the league. DeAndre Jordan’s 33 rank second. Entering Wednesday, Thunder rookie reserve Steven Adams was tied with Pacers starting center Roy Hibbert for third with 24, an amazing number considering the disparity in court time.