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Head to Head: Serge Ibaka and the Thunder keep DeMarcus Cousins in check

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The Thunder managed to out-rebound the top rebounding team in the league. That was just one of the many ways they won the battle up front.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Headed into Sunday night's game against the Sacramento Kings, the tables were turned against the 1-5 Oklahoma City Thunder. The Kings were one of the hottest teams in basketball - winners of 5 straight - behind MVP-caliber play by their center, DeMarcus Cousins.

The Thunder, desperate for a win after coming up short in their three previous games, knew that the key to success was in shutting down the Kings' big man. Shutting down Cousins meant shutting down the interior game as a whole, and that meant the physical edge would swing in the Thunder's favor.

Oklahoma City's star big man is actually not the traditional head-to-head matchup with Cousins, but it was Serge Ibaka's skills as a defensive anchor that made him the key to stopping the interior attack of the Kings. Ibaka was far from the only defensive solution for Cousins' offense, as Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins also played an enormous role, but he was the most impressive. Adams and Perkins made Cousins work in one-on-ones, but it was Ibaka's help from the weak side - as well as his ability to create space on offense - that made him a tough matchup for the Kings front line.

Here is a breakdown of how the Thunder bigs, led by Ibaka, held DeMarcus Cousins in check and got a much-needed win against a red-hot team.

The players:


Serge Ibaka

#9 / Forward / Oklahoma City Thunder

6-10

245

Sep 18, 1989


vs

DeMarcus Cousins

#15 / Center / Sacramento Kings

6-11

270

August 13, 1990


Background:

You can see in the actual matchups, Ibaka's team has completely dominated Cousins'. Meanwhile, Cousins' points and rebounds are about right in line with his numbers from Sunday night, and his 7-of-15 shooting was actually an improvement over his career percentage against the Thunder with Ibaka.

Ibaka, meanwhile, was right in line with his averages in blocks against the Kings, and his points and rebounds were slightly improved in Sunday night's game, even while his shooting percentage was down – especially by his typically efficient standards. Basically, Cousins failed to dial it up while Ibaka answered the call in light of his missing teammates.

As for this season, Cousins' numbers are far flashier, but it's not like Ibaka has been a slouch himself. Though Ibaka's 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game are solid, when you take into account that he has essentially been pushed into the role of "the man" with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook out, the inflation in points is nothing to get too excited about. Cousins, meanwhile, has been an absolute force, scoring a beastly 24.8 points a game while hauling in 11.8 rebounds. He was also shooting a respectable 50 percent from the field and, perhaps most impressively, had just as many blocks as Ibaka.

It'd be hard to argue that both guys aren't far and away the MVPs of their teams so far. Cousins, in fact, was also a strong MVP candidate for the entire league through the first two weeks, but the Thunder found a way to take away his strengths. They forced Cousins to try too hard, taking him out of his comfort zone and ultimately overwhelming him by putting him in situations where he isn't nearly as effective. Meanwhile, the Thunder found ways to put Ibaka in favorable sets on offense, and they trusted his defensive instincts on defense, allowing him to make plays on his own. That combination is how Ibaka one-upped the MVP-candidate, Cousins, and made his own All-Star case in the process.

Matchup highlights:

Swatting Cousins away

It's pretty fitting that Cousins' game started and ended with getting blocked by Ibaka. In the first clip in the above video, it's actually Steven Adams that engages Cousins in the low block. Again, Ibaka is getting spotlighted here, but it can't be overlooked how effective both Adams and, even moreso, Kendrick Perkins were at handling the man-to-man duties on Cousins. Adams had a little more trouble at times, either with fouling or allowing inside position, but for a guy only in his second year, his strides are obvious. Perkins, meanwhile, always seems to raise his level of play depending on the caliber of the opponent. His physical play on defense – something he never fails to utilize – kept Cousins out of his rhythm, and bullied him into some uncomfortable situations where he forced shots.

:00-:15 - In this particular clip, again, play one starts with Adams on Cousins. You can see Ibaka early on, though, already begin creeping closer to give help should Cousins get past Adams – which he does. Cousins' post moves continue to improve, and it's hard to fault Adams here for not being able to stay down on it. Ibaka does what he does best, though, swarming the open shooter from the weak side and swatting it away with perfect timing.

:16-:32 - This play is largely the same, as the video indicates, though this time the Thunder zone allows Ibaka to cheat inside. After drifting off his man, Ibaka rotates down further. Cousins catches the ball and thinks he has an easy lane to the hoop, but Ibaka is there to correct him.

:33-:57 - This is basically a mirror image of the first block, in which Ibaka again cheats over to help Adams in the event the Kiwi gets beat. Adams doesn't get beat as easily here, and forces Cousins to go under the hoop for a reverse. It still would have worked for Cousins if Ibaka wasn't so instinctual. The block basically sealed the win for the Thunder.

Blocks are the easiest to celebrate for what they bring defensively, because the result is so flashy and obvious. It takes a special player like Ibaka, though, as well as a special bond with guys like Perkins and Adams, to establish the trust for such a play to occur. Ibaka's ability to sense a shot, while not cheating too far off his own assignment, and then his ability to time his jump and swat so perfectly, make him one of the best defenders in the league.

It's not just the blocks that make him such a defensive threat, though, because his blocking instincts have aways been world class. It's Ibaka's evolution as an all-around defender, along with the mere threat he poses inside, that make him such a weapon to unleash on opposing offenses.

Forcing Cousins into tough shots

There's no sense breaking down each individual clip here, because they all illustrate the same general principle. Just like with any other player, when a guy can't score inside, or gets frustrated with how difficult it is to work down there, they will settle for jumpshots on the outside. Cousins, no matter what strides he has made throughout his career, is still a center and, therefore, a midrange jumpshot is basically the worst shot he can take. But being swatted away inside can mess with your psyche, and it's obvious that he was frustrated early and just wanted to see the ball go through the hoop. The final clip is actually a make, but if you're the Thunder and you lose because Cousins was dropping midrange turnaround jumpers, you'll live with it.

It's a credit to the discipline of the defense to stay true to their zones and not worry about Cousins at the top of the key. The Thunder did a great job all game of staying inside and forcing Cousins to come to them, something he did occasionally - also to no avail - when he wasn't just settling for difficult midrange jumpers.

Catches away from the hoop

:00-:13 - Again, Ibaka is the one I keep talking about to stay in line with the "head-to-head" theme, but it's Adams here that deserves the bulk of the credit. Cousins, after not scoring on inside layups or midrange jumpers, decides to split the difference and catch the ball farther from the hoop and use those post moves. The problem is that Adams does a great job keeping Cousins out of the post and away from the paint. That forces Cousins to do something else he isn't nearly as comfortable doing: put the ball on the ground and dribble.

Cousins does that here and once again finds himself trying to finish a difficult reverse layup with – surprise! – Ibaka there once again. Ibaka doesn't block it, or even defend it really, but it's Adams forcing the long route to the hoop, combined with the threat of Ibaka, that results in the wild layup.

:14-:27 - This is in transition, but the Thunder get back in time to set up their zone. Cousins catches the ball at the elbow where he took a jumpshot earlier, only he knows that isn't his game. Instead seeing a decent-sized lane to the hoop, so he drives for it. It's a long route, though, and Perkins is up to the task of just staying down and forcing Cousins to force up a tough layup. Cousins actually ended up getting his own rebound and finishing here, but it was his only offensive board of the day.

Cousins had to work for every single point out there, and the sheer effort that can take throughout a game can sometimes be too much to ask. Cousins' effort – something he's been questioned about throughout his career – has actually been through the roof to start the season. It didn't look like he wasn't putting it out there on Sunday, either, but the Thunder bigs have a way of wearing down an opponent. Perkins and Adams made Cousins work every time he touched the ball, and even when he got decent looks at the basket, Ibaka was there from the weak side to provide help and deter the shot.

The team effort took Cousins out of his game, and with the Kings expending lots of effort and still losing the interior battle on the offensive end, the Thunder found ways to exploit the defense and really build their lead.

Setting up the offense

Once again, although this video only focuses on Ibaka's makes, you could point out any number of instances from anyone of the team to illustrate how the Thunder took apart the Kings from the inside out. Ibaka's makes give a nice range of examples of how the offense found new ways to create points against the Kings' defense.

:00-:14 - This is your most basic example of offense, but it's a nice contrast to how the Thunder are able to utilize their big man as a shooter, whereas jumpshots for Cousins weren't a great option. Yes, Ibaka is a 4 while Cousins is a 5, but the unique part about Ibaka is he fills the same defensive role that Cousins would. Most stretch 4s – which is how most would classify Ibaka – don't also provide the rim protection Ibaka demonstrated in the clips above. That makes Ibaka truly unique, and it's what makes matching up against him so tough. Here, he gets the ball in a basic face-up situation, but the defender gives him plenty of breathing room, and Ibaka is one of the best shooters in the game when he has space.

:15-:24 - Now the Kings know they have to get out on Ibaka, but the Thunder run a simple set to free him up with a screen from Adams. The screen is textbook and Ibaka catches with plenty of room to get off a shot, which he buries. The Thunder is making the Kings defenders run around and chase Ibaka through screens, something that is frustrating enough for perimeter players, but even moreso for guys accustomed to banging bodies inside. Ibaka's interior presence means you have to respect that part of his game, but giving it too much respect leaves you vulnerable to getting to set up like they do here.

:25-:39 - Here you get the Thunder in transition, and with Cousins down on the other end, it's a matter of exploiting the openings. The Thunder gets a good look from the corner that clanks off the rim, but the hustle by Ibaka results in an offensive rebound. For the game, the Thunder won the offensive glass 11-9, which may not seem all that big of a difference, but it's made all the more impressive by the fact that the Kings were the top rebounding team in the league coming in.

Ibaka knows he has to work for his points, and in this instance he knows the Kings' biggest rebounder in Cousins is out of the picture. Ibaka, in turn, gets good position and soars past the defender for the offensive board. He then does what he was so hesitant to do early in his career: jam it home. The athletic ability of Ibaka is another tool that sets him apart from his competition, and it's in flashes like this when he can jump and corral a rebound, and then jump right back up and slam it home, that makes him so difficult to account for.

:40-:51 - Maybe the biggest area of improvement from Ibaka – aside from his three-point shooting – is his ability to put the ball of the ground. He's always been and still is a catch and shoot player, but it is when he can create offense by himself like right here that he opens up an entirely new set of skills for a defense to account for. Again, here you have a big catching the ball in the corner, only his shooting is so effective that you have to come out on him. Ibaka reads that and takes a few dribbles to set up the spin move to the hoop - much like the spin move Cousins was using on Adams.

Coincidentally, just as Ibaka used Cousins' offensive move, Cousins uses Ibaka's defensive help move, only he is too late in doing so. It may be all the effort that he had to expend on the other side of the floor, or just the fact that his instincts aren't as honed as Ibaka. Either way, Cousins comes over a hair late and gets hit with the goaltending call. Ibaka's move proves effective.

:52-1:03 - The Kings interior just falls asleep here, and Reggie Jackson makes a nice read. Nothing too much to read into here, but it's a nice look into what can happen when a defense isn't disciplined and loses track of a guy. Allowing that to happen right under the rim is pretty much inexcusable, and the Thunder gladly take the two easy points.

1:04-1:27 - Basic pick-and-roll basketball, with Cousins being overaggressive and Ibaka using it against him. If you've come this far, the one thing you're sure to have noticed is how much the word "discipline" has been used in regards to Ibaka. Here, you see his counterpart in Cousins lacking discipline is helping too far off on the Jeremy Lamb dribble. When the ball swings back out, Cousins is way too far under the hoop and overcompensates by rushing to close out. Ibaka stays composed (discipline!) himself, give a light pump fake, and Cousins flies by. That sets up Ibaka with a wide open pullup, and he's becoming one of the best in the game at knocking those down.

Matchup winner:

Ibaka has been fantastic for the Thunder all year, and though he was helped out a ton by Adams, Perkins and even Nick Collison, it was his ability to help slow down the increasingly-dominant DeMarcus Cousins that may be his biggest achievement yet. He scored without taking too many chances, and he limited chances from Cousins on the other end, making Serge Ibaka the winner of the head-to-head matchup.

These are just highlights of the matchup, and Cousins did plenty of good while Ibaka also struggled with his shot at times. But the final plays by each guy are so indicative of how they handled their own respective games. Cousins, feeling frustrated, rushed to get a layup but was denied by Ibaka – who read it from a mile away. On the other end, Ibaka never panicked, sensed the desperation from Cousins, and used it against him with a simple pump fake. A dagger jumper and a dagger block: all in a night's work for Ibaka.