DENVER — Serge Ibaka's contribution in Game 3 was as big as his given name.
Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka was key in the Oklahoma City Thunder taking a 3-0 lead in its opening-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets with a 97-94 victory Saturday night inside the Pepsi Center.
The 21-year-old power forward from the Republic of Congo, the youngest player on the NBA's third-youngest roster, tied a career-high with 22 points, set a career high with 16 rebounds and added blocked four shots, all while rescuing the Thunder from early foul trouble.
“Serge protects the basket,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He does not like you to score. Really what he does is covers up for our mistakes.
“Serge was terrific. He's one of our players who has continued to develop. He's a very aggressive player. His midrange shot is probably the best on our team. He rebounds. He protects the basket and the great thing I like about him is he comes back hungry every day.
“Every day in practice he gives us effort. He's diligent in his work. Every day, he puts in time. He doesn't take a day off.”
Ibaka certainly didn't take Saturday off while logging 39 minutes, which also tied a career high. He had secured a double-double by halftime with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
OKC used an array of lineup combinations to post its fifth straight victory over Denver since April 5.
With 1:08 still left in the first quarter, the Thunder's three most bulky big men — Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed — had collected two fouls each.
Adding to the dilemma, the Thunder's two other centers — Byron Mullens and rookie Cole Aldrich — were both inactive and not part of the team's 12-man roster.
Kevin Durant, who spent much of the night playing the stretch-4 position, shot just 7 for 22 from the field, but still managed to score a game-high 26 points.
Fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook added 23 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. But Ibaka had the biggest presence under what could have been dire circumstances.
Despite being short-handed, the foul-plagued Thunder still managed to outrebound the Nuggets 49-43 and had a 13-12 advantage in second-half points. Denver outscored OKC 32-30 in the paint.