Serge Ibaka casually slipped on a pair of crimson and cream canvas high-tops just before leaving the locker room, immaculately dressed as usual.
He was fresh and feeling good Friday night, which became clear when Ibaka was asked the brand of the stylish sneakers. Typically reserved, Ibaka decided to have some fun following his sixth double-double of the season in the Thunder's 24-point win over Philadelphia.
“What, these?” Ibaka asked in his customary accent. “These are Air Congo's.”
The kicks actually were a high-priced pair from the Louis Vuitton line. Ibaka's light-hearted response, however, elicited memories of the celebratory move to which he attached the same moniker.
“Only after nasty dunks,” Ibaka said when asked what happened to his arm-spreading routine.
Ibaka's “Air Congo” celebration and his signature finger wag after filthy blocked shots have been infrequent sightings this season.
“Dikembe Mutombo told me the next time I do it I have to give him a check,” Ibaka said, referring to the league's second all-time leading shot blocker who popularized the finger wag.
Fashion aside, Ibaka is just fine substituting style for substance this season.
In the blink of an eye, Ibaka has blossomed into one of the best power forwards in the league. He has become more consistent with his offensive game and even has expanded it. And he has become a better all-around defender and not just a menacing shot blocker who led the league in that category last season.
“Yeah, he's been great,” said Nick Collison. “Obviously his offensive game has expanded, and he's still blocking shots and rebounding. But I think his focus is a lot better. Defensively, he's where he should be. He's not getting lost and he's been great for us.”
In his fourth season, Ibaka is averaging 14.3 points and 8.5 rebounds. Both are career bests. He's also upped his shooting percentages to 56.2 percent from the field and 82.1 percent from the free throw line.
More impressively, Ibaka has increased his production in spite of remaining the fourth option offensively. Yet no one seems surprised.
“Now we expect it from him,” said Kevin Durant. “When he has a double-double it's not like breaking news.”
Lately, Ibaka has been on a tear, providing a glimpse of his potential to be a game-changer in all facets, on both ends.
Four of Ibaka's six double-doubles have come in the past 10 games. Over that span, Ibaka has averaged 14.9 points and 10.9 rebounds.
In the first 22 games, Ibaka averaged 14 points and 7.4 rebounds.
The bump in Ibaka's rebounding numbers stemmed from Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who in recent days inspired Ibaka to be more aggressive on the glass. Thus far, the results are most readily seen in Ibaka's offensive rebounding numbers. He's averaging 3.8 offensive rebounds over the past 10 games compared to 2.3 in the first 22.
That 3.8 average would rank Ibaka sixth among all players.
“He's always been a pretty good defensive rebounder,” Brooks said. “But this year we've challenged him. And give him credit, he's locking in on the offensive side of the rebounds.
“He has quickness, he has strength and he has the jumping ability to get offensive rebounds. But you just have to go every time... I think now he's going every time and they're adding up. He has the ability to be our best offensive rebounder along with his defensive rebounds.”
Ibaka's recent rebound rate perhaps provides the blueprint for how he might someday reach his still unfathomable ceiling.
Though he's polished his post game, mid-range jumper and 3-point shot, Ibaka still must take a backseat on offensive to Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin. But as we've seen over the past three weeks, Ibaka is more than capable making an impact with hustle plays that lead to points off putbacks.
And while pleased with his development, Ibaka still isn't satisfied.
“I work hard. I try to do the best I can,” Ibaka said. “I'm getting better and better. I don't want just to be like people used to know Serge Ibaka four years ago. Now it's my fourth year in the NBA so I'm trying to get better at everything.”
THUNDER'S NEXT FIVE
SUNDAY: at Toronto, Noon (FSOK) — For whatever reason, the Raptors have always given the Thunder fits. OKC is just 4-3 all-time against Toronto.
MONDAY: at Washington, 6 p.m. (FSOK) — Toronto followed by Washington should be a gimme back-to-back, but OKC lost in its last visit to both places.
WEDNESDAY: vs. Minnesota, 7 p.m. (FSOK) — Thunder was 21-4 and on a 12-game winning streak before the Timberwolves derailed OKC on Dec. 20.
FRIDAY: at Los Angeles Lakers, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN, FSOK) — Lakers lost earlier meeting in OKC on Dec. 7, but they didn't have Steve Nash or Pau Gasol.
JAN. 13: at Portland, 8 p.m. (FSOK) — Guard Damian Lillard is the pending rookie of the year, plus Trail Blazers are tough to beat at the Rose Garden.
By JOHN ROHDE