Serge Ibaka grew up admiring the game of Kevin Garnett, and on Wednesday night, the young Thunder power forward got a first-hand experience of why this was so.
OKC built a huge lead on the Boston Celtics, then held on for a 119-104 victory before another sellout crowd of 18,203 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Garnett finished with 23 points (8 for 11 from the field), 13 rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Ibaka finished with four points (1 for 5 from the field), five rebounds, one block and a healthy dose of humility.
“I always loved the energy he brings to his team,” Ibaka explained of why he adores Garnett's game. “He is strong, athletic and I loved his post moves when I was young.”
The 6-foot-11, 253-pound Garnett is 35 and was born in Mauldin, S.C. The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Ibaka is 22 years old and was born in the Republic of Congo.
Garnett was the No. 5 pick of the 1995 draft and taken at the age of 19 out of Farragut Career Academy in Chicago. Ibaka was the No. 24 pick of the 2008 draft, taken at the age of 18 out of Brazzaville.
Ibaka and Garnett have played against each other for three seasons now, but have never chatted.
Garnett learned Wednesday that Ibaka had idolized him growing up, which drew a chuckle.
“Really?” Garnett said, hustling to catch a team bus. “I haven't watched enough of Serge to really know his game. I know he's a big man who has range. He plays hard and has great athletic ability. Serge is going to be as good as Serge wants to be, and it's all up to him.”
Asked if he sees similarities in Garnett and Ibaka, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said: “Yeah, they're both athletic as heck, both very young when they came in (to the league). The jump has been amazing (with Ibaka) how quickly he's improved. The thing I love about him the most is he plays with that passion. It's tough to play at Kevin Garnett's passion or energy level and he does that, which is nice to see. I wish they all (young players) did it.”
Ibaka clearly was too frustrated to play with his desired passion or energy on this night. Consider it a lesson learned for one of the league's rising defensive forces, who came in as the NBA-leader in blocked shots at 3.28 per game, having blocked 57 shots so far this month alone.
Against the Celtics, Ibaka essentially was non-existent. He got off to a horrid start against Garnett, who had seven points and three rebounds by the time Ibaka had picked up his second foul in the first period.
Ibaka had three rebounds by this point, but he was 0 for 4 from the floor and none of his shots came from outside 5 feet.
During a timeout with 6:32 left in the third quarter, a dejected Ibaka slowly walked toward the bench after losing the ball out of bounds underneath.
Teammate Kevin Durant met him at halfcourt, draped his left arm around Ibaka's neck, slapped his right palm into Ibaka's chest several times, imploring him to stay strong.
With 4:53 left in the game, former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins was whistled for his sixth foul on a charging call against his ex-teammates and also got his 11th technical of the season.
A 27-point Thunder lead had dwindled to 10 when Ibaka replaced Perkins. Then the lead shrunk to six with 3½ minutes left in a game that was far from over.
With 1:36 remaining, Ibaka converted his only field goal of the night, a simple dunk off a James Harden pass underneath to push the Thunder's lead to 114-104.
As Ibaka came down for his landing, his facial expression seemed to say, “Finally.”
Ibaka's final act was his lone block of the night, swatting a Ray Allen layup attempt into the waiting arms of teammate Daequan Cook, who was standing 20 feet away.
Ibaka, Durant and Russell Westbrook were then removed from the game to an ovation with 26.6 seconds left.
As is his ritual, Ibaka touched the court as he exited, crossed himself and looked to the heavens. He then shook his head in disgust as he accepted a high-five from coach Scott Brooks.
Ibaka had been schooled and he knew it. He lost the battle, but won the war and presumably had learned plenty from his idol.