Serge Ibaka did his talking on the court on Monday night. (AP/Sue Ogrocki)
Lots of NBA fans got pretty amped in the hours before Monday night's tilt between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs when we learned that Spurs swingman Stephen Jackson — who had missed nearly a month after fracturing his right pinkie finger against the Los Angeles Clippers, and had earned a $25,000 fine for tweeting a threat to jack up Thunder forward Serge Ibaka the next time they played — had been activated by coach Gregg Popovich. Sure, it was a rematch of last year's thrilling Western Conference finals and a game that was decided on a Tony Parker buzzer-beater earlier this season, not to mention a matchup of two teams with top-10 offenses and defenses and the two best records in the NBA, but forget about all that. Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight!
Well, unfortunately for any fans who paid for blood, no definitive determinations were made as to whether or not Ibaka is, in Cap'n Jack's parlance, "bout dis life." What was made clear, though, is that Ibaka is a continually evolving player on both ends of the floor, and a growing offensive threat for an Oklahoma City team that most opponents would agree didn't need a heck of a lot more help scoring to begin with.
The 23-year-old Congolese power forward blistered out of the gate on Monday, making his first seven shots and turning in arguably the best game of his four-year NBA career. Ibaka finished with 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting with 17 rebounds, three blocked shots and an assist in 39 minutes as the Thunder whipped up on the Spurs, scoring a 107-93 home win at Chesapeake Energy Arena that was essentially over by the end of the third quarter. Oklahoma City extended its NBA-best winning streak to 11 games, pushed its NBA-best record to 20-4 and got level in its season series with San Antonio, who've dropped three of their lost four — all on the road — to fall to 19-7.
Hit the jump for highlights of Ibaka's big night, plus comments from Serge, Jackson and more.
Ibaka's 25 points tied a regular-season career high that he set last month in a win over the Detroit Pistons, while the season-high 17 boards fell short of his all-time high-water mark of 20, set during a win over the Phoenix Suns back in March. He kicked off the game as a pick-and-pop outlet on the perimeter, canning a trio of jumpers before becoming more of a factor inside, hitting a pair of layups on dishes from Kevin Durant to open the game 5-for-5 and let the Spurs know he'd be a problem all night, in much the same way that he did during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals back in June, when he hit all 15 of his shots — 11 field goals, four free throws — en route to 26 points that helped OKC level the series before taking over in Game 5 and eliminating the Spurs in six.
All told, Ibaka went 5-for-8 both at the rim and on jump shots, offering an inside-out game that made him, as Ben Golliver of SI.com's The Point Forward put it, a "nightmare cover" for a Spurs front line staffed by players whom Ibaka can outmaneuver and outmuscle (bigs Boris Diaw and DeJuan Blair, defensive mismatches like Jackson or Matt Bonner) or whose attention on Ibaka can create defensive lapses elsewhere (Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter). The offensive activity of Ibaka, Durant and Nick Collison during the third quarter, combined with some sloppy Spurs passing and OKC opportunism off turnovers, turned a six-point Thunder lead into a 15-point margin in just three minutes; after another big Spurs burst keyed by Ibaka and Russell Westbrook pushed the lead to 18 at the end of the third quarter, Pop declared his intentions with clarity, pulling starters Parker and Duncan ahead of Tuesday night's back end of a road back-to-back against the Denver Nuggets.
Even without top perimeter defender Kawhi Leonard, who's been out since Nov. 15 with left quadriceps tendinitis, the Spurs' wing unit of Jackson, Danny Green, Gary Neal and Nando De Colo did a sound enough job of holding the Thunder's dynamic duo of Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 41 points (about seven below their combined season average) on 12-for-31 shooting. But with Ibaka firing on all cylinders — and super-sub Kevin Martin continuing his stellar scoring off the Thunder bench with 20 points on 10 shots in 32 minutes — Oklahoma City just had too many answers, as Parker told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News after the game:
"We were doing a good job slowing down Westbrook and Durant," said Parker, whose 14 points equaled Nando De Colo for the team lead. "If Ibaka's going to shoot like that, there's nothing we can do."
Here's the problem: While Ibaka might not shoot exactly like that every night, he's been shooting pretty much like that every night this season.
He's hitting nearly 62 percent of his field goals from between 10 and 15 feet away and 50 percent of his tries from between 16 and 23 feet out, according to Hoopdata's shot location stats, showcasing a refined stroke and a tick-quicker delivery that's allowed him to serve as a near-ideal partner in the screen game. He also ranks 12th in the league in points produced per possession when attacking the rim as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports Technology, putting opposing defenders in a difficult situation — if you attack the ball-handler too aggressively and forget about the screener, Ibaka can roll hard to the rim and finish inside; if you rotate behind the screen to protect the paint, Ibaka can just stay out on the wings and elbows and hit open jumpers all day; and if you pay too much attention to Ibaka, but fail to press the ball and stop the dribble, you've got (most likely) either Westbrook or Durant coming at you with a head of steam.
There are plenty of reasons why the Thunder are scoring at a league-leading and, indeed, historic rate of 111.3 points per 100 possessions — Durant's threatening of the 50-40-90 shooting percentage club and evolution as a facilitator in another MVP-caliber season; Westbrook's improved balance between unleashing his explosive individual game and governing himself to run the team (his assist rate's at a career high and his turnover rate's at a career low); Martin's hand-in-glove fit in the designated-hitter role off the bench (he's shooting a blistering 47.4 percent from 3-point range, getting to the line 5.4 times per 36 minutes and making 93.5 percent of his freebies). But Ibaka's continued growth into a multifaceted offensive weapon has to be considered right up near the top of that list, and it's one of the big reasons why the Thunder look like far and away the best team in the NBA right now.
As for the "bout dis life" Twitter beef, neither Jackson nor Ibaka seemed all that interested in speaking much about it on Monday.
"I'm leaving that alone," said Jackson, who had five points and four rebounds in 19 minutes during his first game back, according to Jeff Latzke of The Associated Press. ''It's all basketball. Whatever was said on the court is going to stay on the court and I'm going to leave it alone. I wish Serge the best."
"I respect your job," Ibaka told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, "but I don't want to talk about [it]. It was a great win for us. We need it. It's about [the] win, the team win."