Head to Head: Serge Ibaka and the Oklahoma City Thunder finally stop the Trail Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

Serge Ibaka and the Thunder were able to corral the All Star LaMarcus Aldridge for the first time this season and even the season series at 2-2.

The Portland Trail Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge is an All Star. The Thunder's Serge Ibaka has put together an All-Star worthy resume, but is not quite an All Star - mostly because guys like LaMarcus Aldridge play the same position. In three previous matchups this season, Aldridge played like the All Star to Ibaka's All Star-hopeful.

Tuesday night, though, with a major assist from the entire Thunder team, Ibaka's Thunder squeezed out a 98-95 victory over Aldridge's Blazers. The win evened the season series at 2-2, but more than that, it was the first time in the four matchups that Aldridge struggled getting what he wanted against the Thunder.


The players:


Serge Ibaka

#9 / Forward / Oklahoma City Thunder

6-10

235

Sep 18, 1989


vs

LaMarcus Aldridge

#12 / Forward / Portland Trail Blazers

6-11

240

July 19, 1985


Background:

In the first three matchups of the season, Aldridge shot 39-for-77 (50.6 percent), and averaged 31 points and 14 rebounds per game. No matter who the Thunder threw at Aldridge, he had no trouble hitting his shots and getting rebounds right over them.

That's saying something, too, given the Thunder's evolution into an elite-level defensive team, largely due to Ibaka's dominating defensive presence.

That defensive skill has been written about here before, and there's really nothing more to add to it, other than to say Ibaka is an all-NBA defensive talent. What Aldridge exposed in previous matchups though is that when he was able to get Ibaka into the post, he wasn't finding much defensive resistance in one-on-one situations.

The previous matchups didn't make Ibaka's offensive game look great either. The 54-percent shooter was 18-for-42 (43 percent) with just 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. To his credit, he did record five blocks in the previous matchup, a 105-97 Thunder win.

The fact remained, in three previous matchups, Aldridge guarded Ibaka and mostly held him in check. On the other end, Ibaka left guarding Aldridge to Perkins, the Thunder's better one-on-one, low-post defender, and that didn't go too well.

Advantage: Aldridge.

The matchup:

Because of the fact that Ibaka has, for the most part, struggled guarding inside and out big guys like Aldridge, coach Scott Brooks preferred to use Kendrick Perkins as Aldridge's primary defender. The rationale was simple: let Ibaka control the paint against the penetrating guards, while Perkins used his strength to keep Aldridge out of the paint as much as possible. Of course, looking at the results - particularly, Aldridge's stats - that wasn't the most successful formula.

You could see why Brooks decided to try Ibaka on Aldridge to begin Tuesday night's game. Perhaps OKC would let Aldridge get more inside position but then bring help when needed in order to force the Blazers offense to rotate more.

That's easier said than done, though. In the first six minutes of the game, with Ibaka guarding him, Aldridge went 2-for-4, with one miss coming on a good look after he backed down Ibaka, and the second on a switch with Perkins guarding him. Aldridge appeared to be ready to resume his personal attack on OKC.

Brooks went back to having Perkins guard Aldridge. Hey, it technically worked one out of the past three times, why not try it again? Especially after Aldridge was getting where he wanted against Ibaka so easily, like here:


And wouldn't you know it, it worked pretty darn well.

SLIGHT DISCLAIMER: Aldridge was a last-second decision to play, having suffered a groin injury the previous game, so who can say how much that played a role in all of this.

Still, from the point in which Ibaka switched off as the primary defender, Aldridge went 3-for-18 shooting and scored just 8 points.

Conversely, Aldridge did guard Ibaka the entire game, and at halftime, Ibaka was 0-for-3 shooting, with zero points, zero blocks, two rebounds, and three fouls. While Aldridge was being kept in check by the Thunder, Ibaka was being kept just as in check by the Blazers, and more specifically, Aldridge.

The second half told a different story. Ibaka responded with nine second-half rebounds, most coming down the stretch when it was imperative for the Thunder to limit the Blazers second-chance opportunities. He also added two blocks and seven points. Essentially, it was Ibaka playing the way he has played against pretty much every other team this season: picking his spots on offense, patrolling the lane on defense, just generally being the menace that put him in the All Star discussion to begin with.

With Ibaka stepping up on his end, the Blazers needed Aldridge to respond. Instead, he didn't score a field goal the entire 2nd half.

Ibaka deserves credit for part of that, mostly because his increased offensive production undoubtedly led to Aldridge having to work harder on the defensive end, and who knows how much that, along with the groin injury, affected his shot-making. But the Thunder as a whole - and particularly Kendrick Perkins, who faces more than his fair share of criticism - deserve a ton of credit for those misses as well.

Look, Aldridge missed several shots he normally makes. We know this. But watch his shot attempts (no, really, they're all right here) particularly those in the fourth quarter, and look how Perkins never lets him get a clean look. He constantly has a body on him. While Aldridge has shown he is more than capable of making those shots in the past, the degree of difficulty is undeniable, and he just couldn't get them to fall in this game.

The key matchup may have been power forward vs. power forward, but the real key to this game was how each team defended those power forwards. In particular, it was Kendrick Perkins for the Thunder. Complain about his salary (it's obviously too high), complain about his limitations (his offense), but understand that this - as the Thunder organization has preached all along - is why he is here, to shut down guys like Aldridge.

It doesn't hurt to have Ibaka there on the help side, either.

Matchup highlights:

It wasn't really a highlight, but Ibaka stepped in right after Kevin Durant picked up a technical early on. Durant kept letting the ref have it, but Ibaka was there to step in and calm down his superstar. That was probably the real play of the game, because if he doesn't step in and Durant keeps going, he's probably ejected. Just guessing here, but there's a strong possibility that would have affected the rest of the game. So nice job stepping in, Serge.

1.) Ibaka meets Aldridge at the rim: This is the perfect example of how Perkins and Ibaka combined to shut down Aldridge. First, you see Ibaka on his man, Robin Lopez, as the Blazers try and get penetration. The ball gets kicked out to Aldridge, whom Perkins has done a good job keeping spaced out. Of course, Perkins physicality doesn't really translate to agility, and Aldridge is able to drive by quite easily. Perk knows he has help on the drive, and that's where Ibaka becomes crucial.


Serge sees the drive coming and gets himself into position to challenge Aldridge's shot. Aldridge plays for the contact, but Ibaka is straight up and in position and the shot falls short, even allowing the Thunder to get a layup in transition. Those are the instincts that have made Ibaka an elite defender and allow the Thunder to thrive as a defensive unit. The guys know when to stick to their man and when to funnel their guy inside to Ibaka. There are none better than Ibaka at altering shots at the rim, as Aldridge learned here.

2.) Ibaka cleans up the offensive glass: Here are two instances of Ibaka's increased effort on the boards in the second half. The first one is a simple tip in, but it was his first field goal of the game. It's simple things like that that can snap a guy out of a funk. When a guy sees his effort resulting in points like that, it's all it takes to make them work just as hard the rest of the way.


As you see in that second clip, in the final minutes of the game, Ibaka continued to be a force on the offensive glass. His work resulted in an extra possession, and while the Thunder failed to capitalize on that directly, the effort became contagious to the rest of the team, inspiring them to keep working hard even when fatigue is setting in.

3.) Ibaka corner three: Ahhhh, the Ibaka corner three. My favorite Thunder play behind Westbrook-to-Durant backdoor alley-oop.


This was a sneaky huge three, too. The Thunder offense was in a rut to start the half. However, with Ibaka's growing confidence in his three point shooting, he drifted out to the corner where he knew he could get an open look. That takes a great deal of mental toughness, to disregard the misses and still trust you can hit a shot like that.

Play of the game: OK, so this is kind of cheating, and it wasn't even really all that great of a play for the Thunder, so much as it was a missed opportunity for the Blazers.


Perkins bites on the pump fake, but he doesn't foul, which isn't easy to do once you're up in the air. While that's a pretty clean look for Aldridge, his timing was certainly thrown off, at least a little bit, by having to pump fake. You can say that that was more Aldridge missing than Perkins making him miss, but just don't say Perkins didn't have anything to do with it.

Again, Ibaka's effort on the glass in the 2nd half? Outstanding, and punctuated here. He doesn't pull the rebound down or anything, but considering where he was coming from, to come in, get a hand on it and knock it to a place where his teammates can get their hands on it, that's still a great piece of work by Ibaka.

Matchup winner:

SERGE IBAKA - with a big assist from Kendrick Perkins

Next Matchup:

There's about an 88 percent chance that the Lakers game gets skipped because, well, have you seen the Lakers lately? Unless something crazy happens, like Steven Adams and Robert Sacre just going at one another, we'll hit the All Star break early and come back with KD vs. Lebron: Round 2 on Thurs., Feb 20.

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