MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With 30 seconds left in Thursday night’s pivotal Game 3, Russell Westbrook curled around a bruising Kendrick Perkins screen, before rising up and missing a potential game-tying 3-pointer
But as Westbrook readied to launch, both of the Grizzlies’ big men had mistakenly fired out to the 3-point line to help. And left – without anyone within 15 feet of him – was Serge Ibaka, by his lonesome for what should have been an easy dunk.
It was a microcosm (and screenshot seen around the Internet world) of the Thunder’s recent offensive problems.
Westbrook’s intentions were fine. Decent look with a chance to tie the game. But it was an unnecessary home-run play when far better options were clearly available. The uncovered dunk would have cut Memphis’ lead to one with more than 24 seconds left on the clock.
But within the play, another pressing issue was highlighted. During the Thunder’s first three playoff games, Serge Ibaka’s offensive impact has been reduced. And it’s not because a lack of effectiveness, but rather a lack of opportunity.
Ibaka’s lofty shooting percentage has remained steady. He’s 18-of-30 overall in the series. But he’s only averaging 10 shots in his 40 minutes per game, down from his more than 12-shot average in 32 minutes a night during the regular season.
“With Serge, he’s gonna get opportunities,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We’re well aware of his touches and we need to get him more looks.”
The absence of Ibaka has been particularly evident late in games.
In the 34 combined fourth quarter and overtime minutes the past two games, Ibaka has been on the court for 28 of them. In that time, he’s only taken one shot.
Durant has taken 21. Westbrook has taken 25.
He’s one of the league’s best mid-range jumpshooters — an established and improving scorer who has stretched his range out to the 3-point line — basically being treated like a defensive specialist with the game on the line.
“We don’t go away from Serge,” a defiant Westbrook said at practice Friday. “Our offense is not around Serge, not built around Serge. You have No. 35, Kevin Durant. Averaged 32 points.”
But one of the biggest reasons Durant was freed up enough to average that many points, and maybe the biggest reason Westbrook averaged nearly seven assists, is because of the growth in Ibaka’s offensive game.
He’s a needed and capable third scorer, commanding attention on the boards and sucking the defense away because of his ability to space the floor with his jumper. He averaged 14.7 points this season, turning from dangerous to deadly on the pick-and-pop. And he’s shown the ability to run it effectively with both Durant and Westbrook.
But maybe the Thunder’s most potent offensive play has disappeared in crunch time. Both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop with Serge have been abandoned. The dribble-and-heave has become more popular.
“Not necessarily we have gone away from it,” Brooks said. “They’ve done a good job of packing the paint, and we have to do a better job of finding our players open.”
Shots aren’t something Ibaka is complaining about. Individual field-goal attempts aren’t splintering this team apart.
“I don’t think now is the time for us to be thinking, ‘How many shots did I get?” he said.
But from a strategic standpoint, more Ibaka would benefit the superstars who have gone away from using him. More spacing. More movement. More balance. More weapons for the Grizzlies to worry about.
Serge Ibaka has been an underutilized weapon all season. And it’s become an even bigger issue in the playoffs.