The Oklahoma City Thunder suffered a tough 111-105 overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last night, tying the series at 1-1. The win puts the Grizzlies in control as the teams head to Memphis for the next two games, but there were still some positives for the Thunder to take away. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both turned in strong performances, but more importantly, Serge Ibaka was able to make a big impact on the game.
It is an obvious statement to say that Ibaka is the x-factor for the Thunder, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The Thunder need a third scorer to step up and support Durant and Westbrook, and they also rely heavily on Ibaka to slow down the Grizzlies’ interior tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Ibaka was able to have some success in both those roles last night, recording 15 points on 50% shooting from both the field and three, as well as 11 rebounds and 5 blocks.
Ibaka did an excellent job as a weak side shot blocker in yesterday’s game (as usual), but he needs to do better in individual situations. Randolph had 25 points and made some clutch buckets down the stretch, while Gasol had 16 points and 7 assists. Obviously the blame can and should be spread around, but Ibaka is the one player the Thunder have who can eliminate one of the Grizzlies’ stars from the offense. His presence as a shot blocker is a key to the Thunder’s defense, but he also needs to have more success in terms of standard defending.
Offensively, Ibaka must be a consistent third scoring option for the remainder of this series if the Thunder are to advance. He was right on his regular season average of 15 points, but the Thunder need more. They have very few legitimate scoring threats after Durant and Westbrook, and they need Ibaka to shoulder more of the offensive load. Ibaka’s ability to stretch the floor as a shooter pulls either Gasol or Randolph out of the lane, serving to open up driving lanes and create offensive rebounding opportunities. Reliable scoring from Ibaka also means that the Thunder have a better chance of surviving an off night from one of their stars.
One of the biggest factors in the Indiana Pacers’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season was the transformation of Roy Hibbert from a good player in the regular season to a dominant one in the postseason. The Thunder need Ibaka to take that kind of leap if they are to advance from this series and challenge for a title. Ibaka has turned in two strong performances to start this series, but the Thunder need even more from him. Ibaka is the player who can push this team to the next level, and his performance will be the key to the Thunder reclaiming control of this series.
If Ibaka does end up playing to his potential then Oklahoma City should steal a game on the road against the Grizzlies, for which you can get your Thunder tickets here.