Serge Ibaka trudged to the bench midway through the second quarter, with three fouls and not so much as a shot taken.
Frustration mounted. Sometimes, it doesn't go away. “Sometimes,” Nick Collison said, “guys are out of it” all game long.
But Ibaka's maturation continued Sunday night. He returned in the second half unshackled by his first-half performance.
“Hungry,” Ibaka said. “I was hungry after the first half.”
Ibaka ate well. In the Thunder's 103-83 victory over Portland, Ibaka scored 16 points in the second half and blocked more shots (four) than he missed (two).
“Didn't seem like he missed a shot,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “I can't remember the two he missed.”
And it wasn't like Ibaka was rattling home his jumpers. One swish after another. Ibaka's misses came on a 16-footer early in the third quarter and an air-balled baby hook. Otherwise, he was money.
Ibaka made seven of nine shots in the second half; only one was closer than 13 feet. The rest were jumpers between 13 and 17 feet. Might have been Ibaka's best shooting display since that 11-of-11 playoff game against the Spurs last May.
Four of Russell Westbrook's nine assists came on Ibaka jumpers. “Russell did a good job of finding him,” Scotty Brooks said. “We have some plays to utilize his skill, and he's one of the best midrange shooters in the league.”
And Ibaka's defense was superb, too, although he had to get in line for credit on that. Kendrick Perkins, Collison and Ibaka took turns harassing Portland all-star LaMarcus Aldridge, who came into the game shooting 48 percent for the season and 49.3 percent for his career but made just three of 14 shots Sunday night.
“Perk and Nick did a great job on him in the first half,” said Ibaka, who was saddled with three fouls by the 5:03 mark of the second quarter.
Then down the stretch, when the Thunder took command of this game, Ibaka handled the duties. Aldridge's only basket of the second half drew Portland within 88-83 with six minutes left, but the Blazers never scored again.
In seven games against the Thunder since Perkins arrived 25 months ago from the Celtics, Aldridge had shot over 50 percent, 78 of 154. But the Thunder put the clamps on him Sunday night.
“It's a big deal,” Collison said. “He's a big part of what they're trying to do. We made his shots tough in the post. We guarded him well.”
Ibaka's five blocked shots are part of that. Blazer guard Wes Matthews said “Perkins kind of controls the paint; Serge takes care of stuff at the rim.”
It's a potent defensive combo, and the efficiency doesn't drop off when Collison enters.
That kind of defense can help the Thunder snap out of its recent doldrums. Kevin Durant said the Thunder can build off the defensive momentum shown in the last three games.
And when Ibaka is blocking shots on one end and swishing shots on the other, the Thunder is tough to beat.
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.