LOS ANGELES — Serge Ibaka has been sensational this postseason.
Nothing illustrates that point quite like the Thunder power forward’s performance in Friday night’s Game 3 against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Ibaka shook off two quick fouls in the first four minutes of the game and continued to be an engaged and productive player in Oklahoma City’s pivotal 118-112 win.
“I’m proud of Serge,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “A couple of years ago, if he would have got two quick fouls his game would have been dicey coming back in. But he competed. He wasn’t worried about his fouls…I thought he did a good job of playing when he had the fouls. That’s a sign of growth with Serge Ibaka, that he continued to play through it and not worry about his foul situation.”
Ibaka went on to supply 29 impactful minutes, the final five of which came with him being just one whistle shy of fouling out. Despite the challenging circumstances, Ibaka scored 20 points with six rebounds while helping to put the Thunder in position to have a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in Game 4 on Sunday afternoon.
“He’s competing,” Brooks said. “And when Serge competes, it always puts us in a position to have success.”
Ibaka’s impact, however, is increasingly being overshadowed by incredible performances by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. But the Thunder is in this position thanks in large part to Ibaka’s ability to contend with Clippers forward Blake Griffin, the second runner-up for this year’s Most Valuable Player award.
Ibaka has given the Thunder a reliable defensive option for Griffin on the low block and a steady source of offense that makes Griffin work at the other end.
Griffin has an advantage against most defenders, be it brute power or blazing quickness for a big man. But against Ibaka, Griffin has been relatively grounded.
In the first two games of this series, Griffin averaged 19 points on just 41.4 percent shooting. He broke out in Game 3, scoring a team-high 34 points on 13-for-22 shooting. But Griffin’s field goal percentage dips by more than eight percent with Ibaka on the court, according to NBA.com/Stats. And one of the biggest drop-offs is from within five feet, where Griffin is shooting 72.7 percent with Ibaka off the court but just 50 percent with Ibaka on the floor.
“I think he’s doing a good job of trying to stay in front of him as much as he can,” Brooks said. “Griffin is doing a good job of hitting shots from the perimeter. That’s one of the things he’s worked on and obviously you see that has improved. But I like what Serge is doing.”
Brooks also complimented Ibaka for keeping his cool in the face of physical play and other forms of gamesmanship that’s going on in this series.
“He’s playing against a very good player, an MVP-type player in Blake Griffin,” Brooks said. “But I think he’s doing a good job of really keeping his composure and not getting involved in all the other things that that can entail.”
Ibaka got baited into a technical foul once in Game 1 after kicking his foot away from Griffin’s legs to free himself. Aside from that, though, Ibaka has played through mind games.
“When I play against him, I don’t really worry what he do or whatever,” Ibaka said. “I just try to do what I can do. I just try to play my game and stay focused. Sometimes I’m going to get foul trouble. Sometimes, you never know. All I can control is what I can do.”
As impressive as anything else has been Ibaka’s ability to be resourceful offensively. He’s averaging 15.3 points in the series on an eye-popping 72.4 percent shooting. He’s done it not by being a focal point of the offense but by making the most of opportunities when the ball is swung his direction, as well as creating a few more scoring chances for himself through sheer hustle.
When the Clippers pulled within one with less than five minutes to play Friday, Ibaka scored on back-to-back possessions by rolling to the basket and finishing a feed from Westbrook and rebounding a missed fadeaway by Durant and converting a putback dunk.
“His mindset has been great,” said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins. “We just need him to keep going.”