SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Serge Ibaka squared up and scrunched down into his defensive stance.
He was off to a good, fundamental start.
Then, in an attempt to shut off the space between himself and Blake Griffin, Ibaka moved in closer.
Soon, the Thunder power forward had the top of his head lodged in Griffin's belly, taking the defensive tactic of crowding his man to an unforeseen level.
“I wanted to just try to be more aggressive and don't let him think and don't let him have space,” Ibaka said of his peculiar style Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers. “So I tried to get near him so he had to make some tough decisions.”
It was strange, but Ibaka said it was not a part of his strategy. The unconventional method, Ibaka explained before Friday's game at Sacramento, became magnified as part of a game within the game.
“One possession, he put his elbow on my head,” Ibaka said of Griffin. “I didn't want to (move) because I didn't want to get a foul. He was trying to get me to foul. I put my head in and he put his elbow on my head so I said, ‘If I want to raise (my head) right now, they will give me foul.' So I just put my head down like that and they still gave me fouls so it didn't make sense.”
That chess match continued for several trips, most of them won by Griffin, who scored a team-high 31 points in a losing effort.
“It's hard when you're getting fouls,” Ibaka said of playing sound defense. “Then you got to try to change your defense because you don't want to get in foul trouble, especially when the other team already knows you're in foul trouble. They will give him the ball every time.”
The unorthodox technique that ultimately played out in that Clippers game, though, did more than provide a few moments of comic relief. Ibaka's efforts displayed his continued development as a defender.
In his fourth season, Ibaka has worked hard to round out his defensive skills and become more than just a dominant weak side shot blocker. He's now complementing his help defense with improved positional defense. According to Synergy stats, Ibaka is allowing just 0.58 points per possession on isolation plays, which ranks him 23rd in the NBA. Opponents are shooting just 25.4 percent against him in those isolations. Last year, Ibaka yielded 0.77 points per possession, ranking 147th, and allowing 38.2 percent in isolations.
So far, Ibaka's growth has been seen against some of the top offensive power forwards in the league, such as Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki and Zach Randolph. He's crowded each better this year than in past seasons and helped the Thunder limit their effectiveness.
“We want to crowd the basketball,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We want to get into the basketball. We've always had a saying, ‘you have to make your man feel you.' By doing that, every now and then you might get a little too close. But Serge is an aggressive player. He's a strong and quick athlete, and we like when he's aggressive and getting into his man.”
Ibaka said he's only getting better with time.
“I'm just learning,” he said. “I've been playing four years now in the league. Especially on the guys you play more than one time, like Blake, Dirk, all the big power forwards in the league, it's normal. You learn something.”