Overlooked and perhaps underappreciated since the trade that brought Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City is the opportunity the deal has presented Serge Ibaka.
But Ibaka, the second-year forward who just keeps getting better, has forced us to pay attention.
Ibaka has become a consistent game-changer for the Thunder since replacing Jeff Green as the starting power forward. In 12 games since the four-player trade with Boston, Ibaka has averaged 9.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.66 blocks.
“His confidence is sky high right now,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant.
More impressively, Ibaka has manufactured his production despite averaging just 29.8 minutes over that span — still a shade below what's typically classified as starter's minutes. It suggests Ibaka is only scratching the surface of what he's capable of. And there is certainly room to grow.
Foul trouble has rarely been the barrier many figured it might be in keeping Ibaka from receiving major minutes. Ibaka has averaged just three fouls since stepping in with the first unit. He's become smarter and more patient, learning how to stay down on shot fakes while avoiding some of the over-aggressive foul calls that plagued him last year and early this season.
“This is my second year in the NBA,” Ibaka said. “I have a little more experience right now.”
Ibaka's impact, meanwhile, has been remarkable. With Ibaka, the Thunder's defense hasn't just been different. It's been downright dominant.
The Thunder has given up just 95.3 points per game since the trade. OKC has held teams to 90 points or less in six of the 12 games, and opponents have shot just 43.5 percent over the past 12 games. The Thunder also has blocked 6.5 shots since the All-Star break, including a league-leading 7.5 rejections in the last 10 games. (Ibaka's 4.1 rejections over that span lead the league.)
By comparison, Oklahoma City's pre-All-Star defense allowed 101.1 points, gave up 46 percent shooting and blocked 5.6 shots per night.
Gone are the days when the Thunder got pushed around in the post by opposing power forwards, which often led to big scoring and rebounding nights. Ibaka's size, strength and length has deterred players from challenging the Thunder inside or made their efforts more difficult.
But Ibaka is proving to be as effective with the big, momentum-changing plays (a combined 15 blocks against Cleveland and Washington) as well as the smaller, “winning plays” (funneling Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala into Russell Westbrook for a game-saving offensive foul).
“He definitely has the ability to cover a lot of ground,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He's one of the rare bigs that can double the pick-and-roll and get back to the basket within a few seconds. We need that extra effort out of him. … When you add that effort with Serge's ability, it makes Serge a pretty good player.”
And it can make the Thunder's offense out of this world. The Thunder's defense has led to offense like never before.
In the past 12 games, the Thunder has averaged 19.3 points off 15 turnovers. The Thunder also has scored 17.3 fast break points, including a staggering 32 when Ibaka tied a career-high with eight blocks in the 27-point win over the Wizards.
Ibaka's impact has been assisted by the presence of Perkins and Nazr Mohammed, who came over via trade from Charlotte. They allow Ibaka to roam and supply suffocating help defense.
But Ibaka's improvement has much more to do with Ibaka, the opportunity he's been given and the manner in which he's taken advantage of it.
“The guy is a worker,” Brooks said. “He wants to improve. He has a desire to get better and he does every day.”
Thunder vs. Raptors
When: 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Oklahoma City Arena
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, 640-AM