PHOENIX — A Tuesday night preseason game against the Phoenix Suns without both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant meant only one thing for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It was Serge Ibaka's time to shine.
The fifth-year forward had a rare chance to be the focal point of the offense, an opportunity to flaunt his development by firing up as many shots as his chiseled shoulders could squeeze off.
Yet the most impressive part of Ibaka’s performance was that he didn’t indulge himself in the Thunder’s 88-76 loss inside US Airways Center. Instead, he showed patience and poise despite having the ultimate green light for the better part of his 27 minutes.
There were enticing flashes of Ibaka’s growth — moments when he made you think back to remember whether he’s shown a certain skill — but there was even more evidence that he’s still a work in progress.
With the offense essentially turning into a two-man show featuring Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, the Thunder put Ibaka in numerous positions to post up and make plays off the dribble, two areas that both Ibaka and his teammates say he’s improved.
His final line was 11 points on 5-for-10 shooting, a modest output that three of his teammates surpassed. But within that effort, Ibaka revealed the makings of a few new weapons that someday might become a part of his expanding arsenal.
Most impressive was Ibaka’s comfort level putting the ball on the floor more frequently when put in isolation situations at the free-throw line area. On one possession, he jabbed right against Suns forward Markieff Morris, drove left and drew contact, earning him a trip to the foul line. On another, Ibaka drove right, gave a nifty little stutter and finished with a pretty right-handed layup.
“He still has to go with what he does well and that is shoot the ball from the perimeter,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “And he’s working on attacking the basket off the perimeter shot. If it’s not open, he has to pump fake and he can drive around. Those are the things that I think we can see improvements in this year.”
Ibaka’s post-up game, an area every Thunder fan seems to crave, appears to need more polish. His footwork was out of whack on several attempts, leading to off-balance hoists, and on one possession Ibaka was whistled for an offensive foul when he barreled into Suns forward Channing Frye.
Brooks said Ibaka must first be stronger on the low block prior to the entry pass and then learn to attack quickly so that defenses can’t get set.
“He’s got to be able to get deep post-ups,” Brooks said. “You have to fight for that deep post-up and not give in and catch it out 15 feet. You have to get a deep catch and then survey the floor. And I think he’s learning that. That’s a process and it takes time.”
It was no surprise that Ibaka was at his very best catching and shooting, something he’s developed quite well in his four NBA seasons. Some of his shots rattled out Tuesday, but his midrange game, whether curling off screens or catching pick-and-pop passes, remains a dangerous threat.
Ibaka said he’s using the preseason to build up the other facets of his offensive game.
“Some nights are tough, like tonight. But the good thing about it is I’m more aggressive,” Ibaka said, “The preseason is good for us. That’s how you learn. I’m sure everything I’m doing right now in the preseason, good and bad, I’m going to learn from and be better when we start the season.”
This year, Ibaka vowed to maintain his aggressiveness in the regular season, when Durant and Westbrook are the unquestioned focal points. It’s a mindset Ibaka said he developed in last year’s postseason, when his effectiveness plummeted following Westbrook’s injury.
“We need different options. Russ and Kevin are only two guys. They cannot do everything by themselves,” Ibaka said. “They need some help, from me to (Kendrick) Perk, to Thabo (Sefolosha) to Reggie. So that’s why I keep trying to get a rhythm and confidence right now in the preseason. No matter what, good or bad, I keep doing it. That’s how I will get confidence. I cannot just get confidence when everything is going well. I need to try to work hard when things are going bad. That’s how I get my confidence.”
With Westbrook still healing from knee surgery and Durant getting the night off, the Thunder shot just 38.5 percent and struggled to create much of anything resembling an offensive flow.
Jackson scored a game-high 18 points but made just seven of 17 shots. Jeremy Lamb added 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting, and Perry Jones III chipped in 12.
Rookie center Steven Adams had another strong showing, scoring 10 points with eight rebounds in 26 minutes.
But the Thunder struggled again with turnovers, coughing it up 22 times before watching Phoenix turn those into 24 points. OKC also got outworked on the boards, losing that battle 50-41, and misfired on 17 of 19 3-pointers.
Afterward, the team’s most disappointing performance this preseason clearly did not sit well with the coach.
“Every minute is a minute to get better, and you have a choice to play those minutes hard,” Brooks said. “I thought we could have done a better job with that. We have to play our minutes hard. We have to be able to defend with toughness, we have to be able to box out and we have to be able to rebound. And we didn’t do that tonight.”