Serge Ibaka’s triumphant return last night made the Western Conference Finals far more interesting. His athleticism and defense were sorely lacking from the Oklahoma City side in the first two games, and his offensive abilities helped open the floor for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. We were able to see first hand how valuable the combination of shooting and elite defense can be from a big man.
Ibaka bothered drives from Tony Parker, bottled up Tim Duncan in the post, and allowed the rest of the team to stay closer to shooters like Danny Green to prevent the barrage of 3s seen in the first two games. On the other end he flashed his midrange game, popping a few jumpers and making plays around the rim. He didn’t attempt a 3-pointer, but that’s increasingly been in his repertoire over the last season. He ended the night 6-7 from the field with 15 points.
That combination of elite rim protection and shooting is extremely rare, but isn’t exactly unprecedented. Rasheed Wallace had a similar defensive effect, using his length more than his athleticism to wall off the paint and bother post scorers. Starting with his 6th season in the league, he also started shooting over two 3s per game, usually hitting about 35% of them (roughly the league average). It was just enough to force defenses to pay attention to him.
His teams could then enjoy clear driving lanes and post up opportunities without having to sacrifice anything on the defensive end. He combined the benefits of going small on offense with those of playing big on defense. Ibaka does the same.
While he isn’t letting the 3s fly quite as often as Sheed did, expect that to change in the coming years. Durant and Westbrook may be the stars of the team, but a stretch 4 who can also compete for Defensive Player of the Year honors year in and year out is an invaluable addition to any lineup. The Thunder knew this when they chose Ibaka over James Harden, though it’s unlikely they could have predicted his future long-distance shooting prowess.
OKC has a few problems, primarily with their depth and the fact that two-fifths of their usual starting lineup can be completely ignored offensively (which led to Reggie Jackson starting over Thabo Sefolosha in game 3), but when their three young stars are all healthy they provide a complementary skill set that is incredibly tough to stop. The athleticism is overwhelming, and more and more the strengths of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are fitting together on the court. Shooting more 3s is Ibaka’s latest contribution to the on-court synergy, and history says that if he can keep it up this team will be on the short-list to win a title for the foreseeable future.