MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Serge Ibaka laughed.
I asked him about the two missed dunks, and he laughed. It's one thing to miss 17-footers by the riverboat load. It's quite another to miss uncontested dunks. If Ibaka can't even dunk anymore, if the loss of Russell Westbrook has robbed the Thunder even of the most simple tap-ins, then what hope do the Boomers have?
And Ibaka laughed. Shook his head, laughed and said, “Honestly, unbelievable.”
Which qualifies as a good thing for the Thunder. Nothing else has worked to snap the slump of ol' Serge. Might as well try the best medicine.
On a night when the Thunders couldn't throw it in the Mississippi if you put them on the banks of Mud Island, Oklahoma City lost to the Grizzlies 87-81 Saturday in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
And this series is becoming increasingly clear. The Thunder can't find enough points to beat the Grizzlies. Not with Ibaka playing like this.
Oh, there are other usual suspects. Kevin Martin had the same miserable shooting line as Ibaka — 6-of-17 — and normally dependable Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison have gone in the tank. The Grizzlies will do that to you. Memphis is an Egyptian phrase for “you're not making this shot.”
Even Kevin Durant is starting to feel the oppression of the Memphis defense. After starting 6-of-7, Durant made just three baskets the final 28 minutes.
And now Durant's job has gotten even tougher. While carrying his teammates, Durant must stoop to pick up Ibaka.
“I have to pick him up, and that is what I have been doing,” Durant said. “We have to get him confidence. We have to get him some shots and get him going. We can't let him put too much pressure on himself. It's all in his mind. If he thinks he is going to make those shots, then he is going to make them.”
I don't know how one guy can get another guy going much more than Durant did in the first half, when twice he set up Ibaka for easy slams. Give Ibaka credit. He wasn't passive. He attacked the rim with so much venom, the missed dunks caromed all the way to Beale Street.
Ibaka likened the missed dunks to some soccer player who I guess blew a penalty kick in the World Cup or something. I'll take his word for it.
But take my word for this. The Thunder can't beat Memphis without Ibaka becoming an offensive force. Since Westbrook went down with that danged injury, Ibaka's shots have gone up and his scoring has gone down.
In three games against Memphis, Ibaka has made 12 of 39 shots. He's three of 24 outside the paint. Forget the dunks. That's mostly a fluke. But one of the NBA's better mid-range jumpshooters suddenly going 3-for-24 means Mayday for the Thunder.
Points are just too hard to come by against the Grizzlies. They plug the middle with a giant in Marc Gasol, and they play team defense on a string, with everyone in concert, and they have a dynamo in Tony Allen who is making life miserable even for the superb Durant.
Get this: the Thunder now has played 12 quarters in this series. OKC has scored less than 20 points in five of those quarters.
Ibaka has got to produce. The Grizzlies aren't giving him batches of wide open shots, but Ibaka is getting enough good looks to be more productive than 12-of-39.
“Our guys believe in him,” said Scotty Brooks. “Otherwise, he's not going to get 17 shots. Give our guys credit. They're not going to turn their back on a guy that can make shots.”
I was serious about good to see Ibaka laugh. We saw his despair at missing that putback in Game 4 at Houston. The Thunder doesn't need any head-hanging. The Thunder needs some defiance.
Ibaka offered up a little.
“We did not have good luck tonight to make a hot shot,” Ibaka said. “Great thing about it, I have confidence from my teammates and coaches, asking me to shoot every time I'm wide open. That's most important for me.
“If we play the way we played, we will win the next game. I don't think Kevin will miss 15(-foot) shots. I don't think myself, I will miss those open 15(-foot) shots, if they play defense the way they played on me.”
I hope Ibaka is right. I hope his teammates do still have confidence in him. I hope that's why he got 17 shots Saturday.
But really, what other option does the Thunder have? The Grizzlies aren't going to let Durant launch 30 shots. Ibaka is going to have to score. And that's no laughing matter.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.