In his first career start Sunday, Serge Ibaka understandably had moments when he looked flat out lost.
Like during the opening tip.
The Thunder's second-year forward stood at midcourt and false started twice before eventually losing the jump ball to Boston center Jermaine O'Neal. Twenty seconds later, Ibaka bit on a shot fake by Celtics forward Kevin Garnett and was whistled for his first foul.
How's that for a welcome into the starting lineup?
But things soon slowed down for Ibaka, who played a career-high 36 minutes in the Thunder's 92-83 loss to the Celtics. And when they did, we got our first look at how the player who is perceived to be rapidly playing his way toward a full-time starting spot performs in that role.
Ibaka slid to his natural power forward position when he replaced incumbent starting power forward Jeff Green, who sprained his ankle Saturday. Ibaka scored eight points with a game-high 11 rebounds.
"I thought he was good," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "He gave us good effort. He gave us a presence down low. And one thing about Serge is he gives you everything he has. I couldn't ask for anything more from him."
Brooks, however, doesn't sound like he's anywhere close to making a permanent switch. Instead, the coach has increased Ibaka's workload. Ibaka entered the game averaging 27 minutes, while starting center Nenad Krstic had averaged just 20.2. Also, since last year's playoffs, Ibaka has routinely supplanted Krstic in the final minutes.
But of course that means the majority of Ibaka's minutes have come at the center position, where some opposing players are bigger, stronger and more skilled than Ibaka can handle. But Brooks said he will continue to juggle his rotation based on matchups, as opposed to making one big change.
Against the Celtics, Ibaka displayed his versatility, showing he could contain Garnett and O'Neal, and the possession that stood out most came with just under two minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Thunder had cut a 22-point deficit to 11. The Celtics tried to get the ball into Garnett on the left block, but Ibaka battled and battled until Boston went in the other direction. Seconds later, Garnett caught the ball at the right elbow, and Ibaka played straight up, refusing to fall for any of Garnett's shot fakes. With the shot clock winding down, Ibaka forced Garnett to pass to Glen Davis, who missed a 20-footer.
Ibaka spent the rest of the game contesting shots with his length, keeping offensive possessions alive and tossing in the occasional 17-footer. Without Green, the Thunder lost a streaky but solid 3-point shooting threat to space the floor. But the team gained a big man who played closer to the basket on both ends, helping to clog up the paint and shore up the Thunder's defense.
By the final buzzer, the two players Ibaka drew duty against had off nights. Garnett had just eight points on 3-for-10 shooting while pulling down eight rebounds. O'Neal scored only five points on 1-for-5 shooting to go with nine rebounds.
"He gives us more shot-blocking and more athleticism," said Kevin Durant. "It's tough not having Jeff out there, but I think Serge did a good job."