In just his third NBA season, Oklahoma City Thunder big man Serge Ibaka has become the league's premier shot-blocker. The spring-loaded rim protector has led the NBA in total blocks in each of the past two seasons, led the league in blocks per game this year (outpacing his nearest competition, JaVale McGee, by an astounding 1.5 rejections per contest) and turned back a whopping 9.8 percent of opponents' shots while on the floor this season, the highest single-season rate since Manute Bol blocked 10.8 percent of opponents' attempts all the way back in 1988-89, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
If you drive the lane against the Thunder, sooner or later, he's going to get you. In Game 1, though, he didn't get anyone, going without a block for not only the first time this postseason, but the first time since March 1. He got back in the swing of things in the first half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, getting all three members of the Miami Heat's vaunted Big 3. But later, at a critical moment in the final minute of the fourth quarter, they got him back.
First, he pinned a Dwyane Wade layup against the backboard, bringing the block straight into your living room:
Next, he got LeBron James at the peak of his jump, denying what had a chance to be a monstrous in-game dunk:
Meeting an explosive leaper like James right at the height of his jump, cleanly contesting the shot in mid-air, getting all ball and sending it aside ... yep, all that is pretty great. Easily one of the best blocks we've seen this postseason.
(For a beautiful look at the calm before the storm that would make a really great poster, if people still hang those, check out this shot of James in-flight and Ibaka rising to meet him, courtesy of the Sports Illustrated Vault.)
And then, Ibaka snatched a bucket away from Chris Bosh on a second-quarter drive, despite Chris Bosh making a really great "I am determined to succeed!" face:
The combination of timing, length, instincts and athleticism can make it incredibly difficult to get a clean look at the rim when Ibaka's patrolling the paint. But his eagerness to contest shots and protect the rim can also be used against him, as Wade did expertly on this critical late-game drive:
The play starts with Wade dribbling up top against Thabo Sefolosha, Game 1's defensive star for the Thunder. James runs down the lane and sets a screen on Ibaka, but that's just an initial action to give Bosh a bit of room to curl around the top of the circle to the far corner, and Ibaka works his way through to the traffic, trailing closely. James then comes back to the top of the key as Wade begins his drive, setting a screen on Sefolosha at the 3-point line. Wade dribbles left around the pick, forcing James Harden to step up to try to cover the penetration; Wade, as he so often and so expertly does, weaves his way between the trailing Sefolosha and the advancing Harden, entering the lane with the right-hand dribble and blowing past a stationary Russell Westbrook.
At this point, with Harden on his left hip and the ball in his right hand, Wade is on his way in for a layup. Kevin Durant's close enough to be able to potentially bother the shot, but he can't completely leave Shane Battier alone behind the arc in the near corner, especially since Battier had hit 9 of 13 3-point shots through the first two games of the Finals. Besides, Ibaka, on the opposite side of the lane is closer, and weak-side help defense is his job; changing or rejecting shots like Wade's layup attempt here is his bread and butter. We all know that.
Bosh knows that, too. That's why he was creeping along the baseline behind a back-turned Ibaka, unmarked once Serge left.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knows that, too. That's why he called this set, giving the Heat the chance to put Ibaka in a position to have to make a decision at the rim, and Wade the chance to be able to counter it.
Ibaka contests, Wade dumps off, Bosh flushes. Tic, tac, toe. Miami uses its own stars' offensive gifts and OKC's star defender's eagerness against the Thunder, like basketball tai chi, and the result is a seven-point lead with 53.8 seconds left.
To be fair to Ibaka, there's not much more he can do there; once Wade split Harden and Sefolosha, he was the last line of defense at the rim. He was victimized by a good James screen up top, a slick drive by Wade and clever offensive engineering. Still, there's something sort of appropriate about Miami's Big 3 coming together on that possession to get a measure of vengeance on the man who's turned them all back earlier in the game, and it helped Miami walk out of OKC with a 1-1 split.