Serge Ibaka was in the perfect place at the perfect time.
Then came the pass…and an all-too familiar result.
A beautiful set up and dish from Jose Calderon slipped right through Ibaka's fingertips. A chance for an easy bucket for the Spanish national team against France on Sunday in the second round of the European Championship was wasted.
Calderon was livid. And for a brief moment, Spain's floor general got to experience what life can be like for a Thunder point guard.
In what is by far the most competitive games being held during this NBA lockout, Ibaka is showing that one of his biggest weaknesses — his hands — still needs lots of work.
For all of Ibaka's incredible improvement in his first two seasons, a pair of hands that at times seem made of stone continue to hinder his development. Ibaka often struggled with simple catches last season, and Sunday's bobble in Spain's 96-69 route of France proved the Thunder's starting power forward still has a ways to go.
As a member of Spain's national team through naturalization, Ibaka, a native of the Republic of Congo, has displayed his usual head-turning skills. He's surprised guards with chase-down blocks. He's gobbled up rebounds. He's canned midrange jumpers.
But when it comes to catching dump-off passes, Ibaka has shown little improvement. It's an area Ibaka has concentrated on throughout his first two seasons and one that he desperately needs to return more comfortable in.
“He needs to improve in a few areas, but that would be an area that we'd like to see him better at,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said late last season. “That's something that I'm aware of and he's aware of.”
Strangely, Ibaka doesn't have trouble getting his paws on all passes. He's a superb finisher on alley-oops. But Ibaka's made corralling bounce passes on the move and snaring dump-offs from slashing guards look like brain surgery.
It's put the Thunder point guards in a tough spot.
“You can't pass it to him because you're out there playing off instinct and you got to make the right play,” said reserve guard Eric Maynor. “If you see somebody open, they're supposed to get the ball.”
Maynor reasoned that Ibaka struggles when he has to concentrate on getting the ball before looking to score. On alley-oops, Maynor said, Ibaka is in midair and just has to catch and finish in one motion. On other passes, however, Ibaka sometimes looks to make a play before securing the ball.
Maynor said Ibaka usually gets an earful from him and starter Russell Westbrook when he fumbles away a pass.
“Because it's our turnover,” Maynor said. “You get mad for a second and then you go up to him and be like, ‘Big dog, I need you to catch that and finish.' He'll be like, ‘I got you. That's my fault.'”
During Brooks' playing days, the remedy for stone hands was a seat on the bench.
“If you couldn't catch the ball, you weren't getting opportunities to catch the ball,” Brooks said.
Ibaka's immense talents prevent Brooks from being able to bench him. So Ibaka is charged with making the adjustment. And behind the scenes, Ibaka has put forth a good effort.
On any given day at a Thunder practice, Ibaka can be seen working on a peculiar drill with strength and conditioning coach Dwight Daub. Sporting a pair of specialized 3-D glasses, Ibaka stands about five feet from Daub and catches an assortment of passes. The glasses impair Ibaka's vision and essentially are designed to improve coordination and reaction time once they come off.
It can be a slightly dangerous exercise.
“I tried that one time,” Maynor said. “Not for me. I can catch the ball. I see the ball coming to me. That's kind of tough.”
For now, Ibaka has no choice. His development offensively is dependent on becoming better at catching and finishing.
“Experience will help him improve,” Brooks said. “But he has to be able to catch passes. Our passers need to have that chemistry with him.
“But Serge, as we know, does a lot of things well for us and that's an area that he will continue to improve at. He just has to keep working at it.”