Serge Ibaka was one of the only players on the Oklahoma City Thunder who had a good performance in their game 1 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Ibaka shot 8-15 from the field, including 3-6 from 3 point range. Although his influence on the boards was underwhelming, he finished with a team high 19 points.
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Ibaka overachieved compared to his scoring averages for the regular season, but it still wasn’t enough considering how bad Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook played on offense.
The concern is that when Durant and Westbrook inevitably break out of their funk, the Spurs can’t afford to let Ibaka shoot the ball as efficiently as he did in game 1.
Ibaka averaged about 11 shots per game in the regular season, so he was a bit trigger-happy in game 1. Westbrook had 19 attempts while averaging 18 per game during the regular season, which is about par for the course. Durant, however, only shot 15 attempts while averaging about 19 during the regular season, so it appears that Ibaka cut more into Durant’s reps than Westbrook’s attempts.
It makes sense that the action played out this way, because Westbrook has more control over the amount of shots he takes, being the never-hesitant gunner at point guard who has constantly has the ball in his hands and can create his own shot at ease.
Also because Durant is naturally more passive on the court, he’ll defer to other teammates much more readily than most alpha-dog superstars who carry a great deal of offensive load.
A point of pride that the Spurs’ interior defense should take note of is that Ibaka only had 2 field goal attempts inside the paint. LaMarcus Aldridge forced him to do his damage primarily from the perimeter. 14 of Ibaka’s 18 shots came from 18 feet or further from the basket.
Although he’s transformed himself into more of a stretch-4 in recent years by expanding his range out to the 3 point line, his strength is still his inside scoring. He shot 142 for 225 low-post shots to either the left or right of the basket during the regular season. At about 63%, that’s well above average relative to the proficiency of the rest of the league.
Just because he’s a competent outside shooter for his size doesn’t mean the Thunder should rely on him too much away from the basket. He shoots about 46% inside the arc but outside the paint, so his midrange game forces defenders to honor his shooting ability. While he can knock those shots down efficiently, it still isn’t the strength of his game despite the progress he has made on expanding his range.
Ibaka’s smooth 3 point shooting in game 1 was a bit of an outlier. He shot a below average 32% from downtown during the regular season. 3 of his 6 attempts came from the left diagonal, and he made 2 of them. Interestingly, he shot less than 29% from that area during the regular season after firing it up 49 times in that specific zone.
The numbers indicate that the Spurs are playing Ibaka correctly. He’s far more likely to do damage low on the block, so forcing him towards the perimeter limits his effectiveness.
Ibaka’s strong performance was certainly a positive for the Thunder in an otherwise disastrous game, but it should be taken with a grain of salt going forward. He did most of his damage from the perimeter, and his regular season sample size shows that he’s less effective the further away from the basket he is.
The Spurs should force Ibaka to try to get his points from outside of 18 feet, because the numbers predict that it’s not a strategy that Ibaka can thrive on for very long.