DALLAS — After a five-game playoff series last year, two preseason games to start this season and two more early regular season contests against the Dallas Mavericks, forward Serge Ibaka on Wednesday night finally figured out how he could make an impact against the defending NBA champions.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks concurred.
With Ibaka spending most of his time guarding the center position rather than deadly Mavs scorer Dirk Nowitzki, the Thunder's defense reverted to its dominant ways in a 95-86 win over Dallas inside the American Airlines Center.
Ibaka blocked a career-high 10 shots — matching the amount the Mavs registered as a team — while adding 11 rebounds to lift the Thunder to 17-4 and turn the team's embarrassing effort two nights earlier against the Los Angeles Clippers into a distant memory.
“Most of the time, I play defense on Dirk,” Ibaka explained. “But tonight, I asked my coach if he can let (Kendrick Perkins) or Nick (Collison) stay on Dirk so I can stay in the paint. Because most of the time when I play defense on Dirk, I'm outside because he's a shooting big guy and I can't leave him open. So it's tough for me to go down and block shots…After playing a lot of games against the same team, it was easy to know.”
Ibaka's 10 rejections tied the franchise record, which contractually still includes the team's Seattle years. But no player in Thunder history has ever recorded double-digit blocked shots. Former SuperSonics forward Shawn Kemp swatted 10 shots in 1991, and center Calvin Booth also blocked 10 shots in 2004.
“He's been playing great defensive basketball, I'd say eight of the last nine games,” Brooks said. “He's good when he's really aggressive around the basket. People are looking for him and that's what we need out of him.”
Ibaka's previous career-high was eight rejections, which he registered twice. But those performances came against league doormats last year in road games at Washington and Minnesota. Wednesday's feat came against a formidable foe, albeit one missing starters Jason Kidd and Brendan Haywood, as well as key reserve Lamar Odom. Still, the job Ibaka did in protecting the paint evoked memories of his breakout performance in Game 2 against the Lakers in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, when he recorded seven blocks, and Game 5 against Denver in last year's opening round, when he recorded nine swats.
“It might be up there,” Thunder guard Russell Westbrook rated Ibaka's performance. “I've seen him do it many times for us. His first year against the Lakers, this was right up there with that. But that's what he does. As long as he continues to do that it's going to be hard to score on us.”
It didn't take long for the Mavs to learn as much.
After a sizzling start in which Dallas made 13 of 19 shots (68.4 percent) in the opening quarter to take a 29-21 lead after one, the Thunder's defense came alive. Ibaka ignited it with four blocked shots in the second period. He set the tone with two straight rejections on driving layup attempts by reserve Mavs guard Delonte West and turned the tide for good with his third rejection.
Making his first career start in place of Haywood, center Ian Mahinmi attempted to score from inside on a series of post moves against Ibaka. But Ibaka sent the shot attempt back, triggering a Thunder fast break led by James Harden. Eight seconds later, Harden hooked up with Westbrook on an alley-oop that highlighted a 21-11 spurt that put OKC on top 42-40.
“That was a great sequence,” Westbrook said. “James, supposedly, said he saw it the whole way. But it was a great job by Serge and James made a great pass. Whatever we may need to get us going, or to get everybody hyped up about playing defense, we need that.”
The Thunder held the Mavs to a 14-point third period on 3-for-19 shooting. The stingy defense continued in the final frame, as OKC limited Dallas to a 20-point fourth quarter in which the Mavs shot just 5-for-19. Dallas' 34 second-half points set a new opponent low for points in the second half.
Oh yeah, and Nowitzki, who has struggled against everyone except the Thunder this season, finished with only eight points on 2-for-15 shooting.
“Take away the first quarter and we played some of our best defense of the year,” Brooks said. “We really got after the ball. We fought through screens. We contested their shots, and we rebounded the basketball. We couldn't ask for better effort and execution.”