The opponent was inferior, injured and in a tailspin.
And against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Thunder had little incentive to play up to par.
But Serge Ibaka forced his team to come out with the right focus.
His energy and effort, seen just 15 seconds in when he caught a pass out of a pick-and-roll with Russell Westbrook and threw down a ferocious one-handed dunk over New Orleans center Greg Stiemsma, pumped life into his teammates and carried the Thunder to a 116-94 pummeling of the Pelicans.
Oklahoma City led by as many as 34 points and didn’t trail in the final three quarters.
Ibaka sparked the rout, first with his monster finish and then by scoring the next six points. But he also supplied a stable of hustle plays throughout the night to keep both his team and its home fans interested in a game most considered a foregone conclusion Friday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Ibaka finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and a season-high eight blocked shots. It was his 27th double-double of the season and a showcase performance that illustrated why teammates Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins earlier in the day deemed Ibaka worthy of this year’s Defensive Player of the Year honor.
“I thought Serge was spectacular,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He’s right there with the best defensive players in the league. He’s right there with the Defensive Player of the Year.”
Ibaka patrolled the paint so thoroughly that he blocked five different Pelicans’ shots.
“He had eight tonight, but he altered probably 10 others,” Brooks said. “And that’s what makes our defense good. When everybody is participating, and when we do have a breakdown, he’s out there backing everybody up and covering for everybody’s mistakes.”
The rejections were just the start of Ibaka’s impact.
Take a late-second quarter sequence, for instance. Ibaka stuffed a driving layup attempt by Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans and quickly took off the other way when Durant gathered the rebound. Ibaka then hauled in a fast-break feed from Durant and finished the play with another forceful dunk. Ten minutes later, midway through the third, Ibaka atoned for an errant pass that was picked off by Austin Rivers by hustling back on defense and pounding what would have been a runout dunk against the glass. Ibaka rebounded Rivers’ miss and got it to Russell Westbrook, who then fed Durant for a fast-break dunk.
They were two of the Thunder’s 28 fast-break points.
The Pelicans had zero transition points, largely a product of Ibaka’s presence preventing them from taking advantage of the Thunder’s 11 turnovers. “He’s got great timing,” Rivers said of Ibaka. “He can just run the floor so well. Off turnovers, we didn’t capitalize and a big part of that is because most bigs can’t sprint back. Most bigs, when a turnover happens, they just hang back, or they’ll sprint and not get there. He’s fast enough to keep up with guards. When you have a 7-foot guy who can jump running on a fast break on defense, it’s hard to get to the basket. Their defense is all on him. Without Ibaka, this is a whole different team.”
Of course, Ibaka’s biggest challenger, Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis, was out with a bum back. He was one of three Pelicans starters on the injury report, joined by point guard Jrue Holiday and shooting guard Eric Gordon. New Orleans sixth man Ryan Anderson also has been on the shelf since early January. The most talented Pelicans player remaining, Tyreke Evans, then left the game midway through the third with bone bruise.
Oklahoma City only added to the Pelicans string of poor luck, sending them to their seventh straight loss. It also was the Thunder’s 10th straight win over the Pelicans and the 14th in the past 15 meetings.
Durant scored a game-high 27 points, Westbrook chipped in 24 points and seven assists and Reggie Jackson added 11 points and eight assists off the bench.
But on this night, it was Ibaka who from the start made sure his team didn’t overlook its opponent.
“He’s the best defensive guy in the league for his position,” Durant said. “He was there for us all night.”