OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was somewhat of a dagger late in the fourth quarter to put the Thunder up seven on the Nuggets, and Serge Ibaka raised both arms to emphatically pump both fists after the ball went through the basket.
But he wasn't the one who scored. It was Enes Kanter on a layup. Ibaka was the one who set him up.
Nothing brings out a patented Ibaka fist pump quite like an assist, because there's not really any play that he's worked harder for. It's what his focus was during a rigorous summer of training, and it's been an area he's been pushed to grow in by Billy Donovan.
"When you're working so hard, when you spend so much time working on something, you really want see the result," Ibaka says. "And when you see the result you're going to enjoy it. So every time I make an assist, it makes me feel good."
Ibaka doesn't get to enjoy it that often. He's got just 37 assists on the season, for an average of 0.8 per game. Draymond Green, he is not. Nor will he ever be. And nor are the Thunder asking him to be. Ibaka is a straightforward player, while maybe one of the most unique. He's a 3-and-D big man, a shot-blocking centaur who hits 40 percent from deep. But he's as mechanical as they come, an A-to-B player, almost robotic in the way he reads and reacts.
That's why, early in the season, Ibaka struggled. As he adapted to Donovan's offensive changes, he was clearly over thinking at times, with the gears turning in his head almost visible each time he caught the ball. His first two months, Ibaka was routinely caught in midrange purgatory, passing on open shots, and then waiting too long to swing the ball to the opposite side.
"Was there a level of growth? I think there definitely was," Donovan concedes in the most polite way possible. "But I didn't lose confidence because I didn't think I was asking Serge too much, like 'you gotta break this guy down, go between your legs, cross over and then look opposite.' I thought it was pretty simple for him and I really believed he could do it and I really think he's gotten better at it."
Understanding the offense
It's taken time, but Ibaka has begun to settle in and gain some confidence in what he's being asked to do. Ibaka has three reads, Donovan says, when the ball finds him any given possession:
1) If he's open shoot it.
2) Look to the basket, to what the Thunder call the "dunker spot," and see if that guy is open.
3) Reverse the ball to the other side of the floor.
That's it. That's all. Not complicated, not hard to understand. But not necessarily easy to do. Especially considering he'd never really been asked to during the past six seasons. Just asking him to just go through that order of operations is taking him out of his comfort zone.
"It's not like we want him to make plays off the dribble," Donovan says. "Just go through a progression. Am I wide open, then shoot it. If the guy that's protecting the rim steps up on me, I need to look to the baseline and, if that's not there and they do a good job stunting, then I need to get it to the other side. I think he's done a good job with that and has gotten more and more comfortable over time of being able to look through his progressions and make good decisions."
Some of the reads might seem elementary, but they're also things Ibaka was never really asked to do the past six seasons.
Standard pick-and-pop, Westbrook draws loads of attention and Ibaka, a 52 percent shooter from 15 to 19 feet, is open. Shoot it. Make it.
This is the second read Ibaka goes through. He catches on a hard roll, pulls a defender to him and immediately looks to the dunker spot and finds Kanter. But what if that's taken away?
Reverse it. Ibaka catches in the pocket out of a roll, sees defenders collapse and immediately looks to the weak side for an outlet, setting up a Russell Westbrook 3. Again, a simple play. But also one Ibaka has really never made.
In the past, Ibaka would catch a pass like this, and either look to shoot it, or simply kick back out to the top of the key and re-screen with Kevin Durant. Instead, he actually goes through two reads, peeking at Kanter in the dunker spot before swinging it opposite to Dion Waiters in the corner.
It's a small thing. A subtle, simple thing. It's the kind of tweak Donovan talked about in training camp, a minor refinement that's only slightly adjusting the way the Thunder play. But it also can pay significant dividends.
"When we're moving the ball, we don't really care who's getting the shot," Ibaka says, "that's really pushing me to really make plays for my teammates."
That's the way Donovan wants the Thunder to play. He likes his offense to see the ball move across the floor, utilizing side-to-side action and counteraction. And to make it happen, his big men need to be able to "transport" the ball.
"One of the things as you watch a lot of NBA teams, I think what makes San Antonio so good is the ability to, even when [Tiago] Splitter was there, with [Tim] Duncan and [Boris] Diaw, is their frontcourt players are really high-level passers," Donovan says. "I had two really high-level passers in [Al] Horford and [Joakim] Noah, and I know what that does to a defense. Because a lot of times you're putting two players on Kevin, you're putting two players on Russell, they need to have some outlets."
Happy Ibaka, happy Thunder
It's not that Ibaka is supposed to average four assists a game or something. It's more that his involvement is a temperature check of sorts for the Thunder offense, a way to measure if it's functioning as it's intended to. When he's involved, when he's active, when he's getting those pocket touches, that's what it's supposed to look like.
"It's huge for us. We need him to do that," Durant said. "He's getting better at it every day. He's working on it. He's learning when to shoot, when to pass and that's the hardest thing in this league, especially when you're a 4 and you're getting the ball swung to you a lot, it's hard to know when to shoot and when to pass. We've got to be patient with him because it takes time, just like it takes time with every part of your game. He's learning."
"It's not that Ibaka is supposed to average four assists a game or something. It's more that his involvement is a temperature check of sorts for the Thunder offense, a way to measure if it's functioning as it's intended to. When he's involved, when he's active, when he's getting those pocket touches, that's what it's supposed to look like."
To be sure, Ibaka isn't passing more this season. He's actually passing less, a lot less. Last season, he averaged 42.0 passes per game. This season, he's at 24.9. The Thunder's plan to grow Ibaka as a passer, at least in terms of raw numbers like, you know passes and assists, hasn't exactly happened. He's still extremely involved in the team's pick-and-roll offense, tied for second overall in the league in pick-and-roll plays. But is he yet some sort of evolved point forward through which the Thunder are running the offense? Not yet.
The Thunder don't necessarily look strikingly different offensively than they have in past seasons, because Westbrook and Durant didn't somehow lose their abilities to size up opponents in space and go get buckets. But they have changed. An example: Since the team relocated from Seattle in 2007, the Thunder had 15 games of 30 or more assists. This season, they've had four.
It's part of their gradual evolution from a priority isolation team into one that occasionally resembles a spaced, ball movement one. They're not trying to be the Spurs or Warriors, at least completely, because you play to the strength of your personnel. But that doesn't mean you still can't attempt to evolve that personnel.
Ibaka is consistently overlooked because of the titanic star power the Thunder have in Durant and Westbrook. He hasn't been quite statistically big enough to form an accepted Big 3, but his importance to the Thunder can't be understated. Just review the 2014 Western Conference finals for a reminder.
Defense is where his reputation is, but Ibaka's offensive impact is almost equally important. As Zach Lowe wrote way back in 2012, Ibaka might be the most important player to the Thunder. He is one-of-a-kind because he protects the rim, switches onto smaller players, maybe better than any big in the league not named Draymond, and provides Westbrook and Durant a lethal midrange pop option. He is also a 40-percent corner/wing spot-up 3-point shooter and a solid roll finisher. But if he can keep adding, and keep those fist-pumping assists coming, he can play an even bigger part in taking the Thunder to the level they're searching for.