It doesn't take a genius to see that Serge Ibaka's struggling these days. The Oklahoma City Thunder big man has had a miserable offensive series against the Memphis Grizzlies, shooting just 12 for 39 (30.8 percent) from the field through the first three games of the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals. The difference between his regular-season shot chart and his performance through three dates with the Grizz evokes a move from Wimbledon to Roland Garros, and it couldn't have come at a worse time, suffering as the Thunder offense is without injured point guard Russell Westbrook.
Whether you ever bought Ibaka at this stage of his development as a potentially viable second offensive option for Oklahoma City, he sure isn't performing like one now, and that's a pretty big reason why the Thunder find themselves down a game heading into a crucial Game 4 at FedEx Forum on Monday. After the Grizzlies snagged control of the series with an 87-81 win in Saturday's Game 3, Thunder star Kevin Durant, who has had to do nearly everything for Oklahoma City on offense since Westbrook went down in Round 1, took responsibility for Ibaka's struggles: "I have to pick him up, and that is what I have been doing. We have to get him confidence. [...] It's all in his mind."
Asked about his struggles and Durant's comments during the Thunder's Sunday practice, Ibaka acknowledged that the mounting misses are getting to him, according to John Rohde of The Oklahoman:
“Yeah,” Ibaka said. “It's normal, man. It's normal. A little bit. But that does not mean my confidence is way down because after all the shots I missed, after the (missed) dunk, I was still playing defense. I wanted to still help my teammates. I wanted to still try to be aggressive. But it's normal like [Durant] said. Of course, that happens to everybody.”
Ibaka suggested his shots in this series might be too easy.
“Most of the time when you're open that's when it's tough to make shots because you try to get some different focus than normally when some guys try to contest your shots,” Ibaka said. “So that's happened.”
Well, Serge definitely had trouble making easy shots early in Game 3, including a couple of uncontested point-blank opportunities:
But he also passed up easy shots in situations that created more difficult ones, thanks in part, it seemed, to being made gun-shy by his lack of offensive rhythm:
It's not like he's running away from the ball or losing all control of his limbs when it swings to him; it's just that Ibaka's tending toward taking an extra second after the catch, whether due to misfiring reflexes or a ghost in the cerebral machine whispering that this one, too, might go wanting:
And while the decision to delay or defer will sometimes work out, as it did when Ibaka passed up a look in favor of kicking out for what wound up being an elbow jumper for Kevin Martin:
... I'm pretty sure most coaches and offensive models would prefer a shot taken from a half-step in front of the restricted area rather than an off-the-bounce, fading-left, late-contested J. (Especially when it's being taken by a shooter who's hitting at a less-than-29-percent clip himself over the past two games.)
So, yes, there's evidence that Ibaka's letting the combination of his own string-pulling and the Grizzlies' defense get inside his head and wreak a little havoc before he makes decisions. That said, it's not necessarily cliché-dropping or lip-service when he tells ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne that he's doing what he can to turn to face the future:
"If you think about the past, you can't get better for the next one. So now I'm trying to do the best I can to forget about [Saturday's] game and be focused on the next game, try to be aggressive.
"I feel great. I feel great. If they play the same defense they played on me last night, I think the next game will be a different story."
And if Ibaka presses the action, as he did on this face-up-and-drive on Marc Gasol:
Or this quick-catch-and-fire off a Durant pick-and-pop bounce pass:
... then good things can result.
Given the similarly mighty offensive struggles frontcourt partner Kendrick Perkins has experienced (he's 2 for 14 in the series) and his evident inability to do anything to ameliorate them (he stinks at offense), and key reserve Nick Collison's difficulties staying on the floor against the Memphis frontline (15 fouls in 51 minutes over three games, including a 15-minute foul-out in Game 2), the onus is on Ibaka to be able to provide any sort of offensive punch to support the Thunder backcourt and, of course, especially Durant.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks believes that he, and his teammates, can and will find their form at some point in this series. More from Rohde at the Oklahoman:
“This is a broken record, but I know we can hit shots," Brooks said. "I've seen the ball go in the basket many, many times with our team and I have confidence that will happen, and hopefully soon.”
A more aggressive Ibaka able to quiet down the naysayers — especially any lingerers between his own ears — would figure to help bring the rhythm back sooner rather than later.
Missed dunk video via Dimitri Kucharczyk.