During the regular season, Serge Ibaka was an essential and consistent cog of the Thunder offense. He averaged the third most points on the team, and shot higher percentages than Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Basically, he was a touchstone, somebody the Thunder could rely on for a solid 13 points night in and night out. He'd never hurt you on the offensive end, and he was always reliable defensively.
Last night, Serge Ibaka continued to fulfill his defensive obligations. He did an excellent job of shutting down Zach Randolph in the second half, and did well to keep him away from the rim. Randolph is a master of shooting under duress, so some of his heaves are going to go in. But the father you keep him away from the rim, the worse he'll shoot. And Serge Ibaka understands that. So on that end, I have to applaud him.
However, he was a total no show on offense last night. It's not part of a continuing trend with him or anything like that, because he was putting up his normal production during the Houston series. But it is part of a continuing trend against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have been one of Ibaka's toughest opponents in the past, and it shows. He doesn't have bad percentages against them or anything, because he's normally pretty good about avoiding low percentage shots. In fact, he shot under 40% just 7 times this season. Still, he does get pretty low numbers against them. In the Thunder's last two matchups against the Grizzlies, he only managed to score 4 points each time. Even in the previous two seasons, you can note some lower than usual numbers for Serge Ibaka against the Grizzlies, especially when Zach Randolph is playing.
Why did he miss so many shots last night? Well, without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have less options on offense. Thus, Serge Ibaka has to stay in the offensive flow. He can't afford to fade into the background. He was forcing a whole lot of shots that should have never gone up, and Zach Randolph just had his number. It might be confusing to most as to why Randolph is able to keep Ibaka in check, because he barely has enough athleticism to jump over a phone book.
But, the answer is simple. Zach Randolph doesn't have to worry about penetration. There's no Thunder player who's dangerous enough to make him worry about protecting the paint, so he can afford to stay on the perimeter with Ibaka and challenge every shot. Now, I know that Ibaka was just as bad when the Thunder had Westbrook. But in both of the games where Serge Ibaka struggled, Westbrook and Durant were struggling to penetrate the paint. Thus, there were less opportunities to drive and kick to a wide open Ibaka.
In order for Ibaka to succeed, he needs to get passes from the paint. Looking at his successful outings against the Grizzlies, like in their first game against the Thunder this season, that's how basically all of his points were made. When somebody was able to suck in the defense, Ibaka was able to step up and make a shot. It's that simple. Last night, all of the passes came to him from the perimeter. They all ended up in contested jumpers.
Now, that's not to say that Ibaka can't succeed when jumpers are contested. If he continues at his current rate, he'll have one or two solid games in what most predict to be a long series. But he could end up killing the Thunder when both of the Kevins are shooting over 50%.
A Vicious Cycle
All in all, I think Ibaka's problems are more indicative of a larger issue on the Thunder team. They simply aren't distributing the ball enough. The 13 assists last night are 6 below their average. Excellent defense and great production from the Thunder's stars were able to neutralize that oversight, but the Thunder are going to suffer as a whole if everybody isn't getting good looks.
It's not an impossible thing to do without Westbrook, because the Thunder were doing a great job of moving the ball in their last two games against Houston. It just seems like the Thunder's ball movement hinges on penetration, because they don't have a lot of dangerous shooters that can make the other team pay. And when they encounter a team that's solid in the paint, like Memphis, they have to rely on their shooters. One of which is Serge Ibaka. Yes, problems beget problems. Unless there's a breakthrough in one area or another, it looks like some tough D is going to have to win this series for OKC.