Three-Pointers: Relentless Ibaka carries Thunder past Spurs
By Ben Golliver
The Thunder defeated the Spurs 107-93 at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Monday night, winning their 11th consecutive game and improving to a league-best 20-4.
• For an endlessly entertaining, explosive and exciting team, the Thunder sure have an uncanny ability to turn a big showdown into a bit of a snoozer. They did it 10 days ago when the Lakers came to Oklahoma City and got thumped and they did it again on Monday, dispatching the Spurs with a third-quarter burst that was so convincing, Gregg Popovich opted to rest his stars down the stretch in preparation for the second night of a back-to-back against the Nuggets in Denver on Tuesday.
The lasting thought from this one was that Stephen Jackon’s choice of Twitter targets couldn’t have been worse. Last week, Jackson threatened Serge Ibaka, opining that the Thunder forward “aint bout dis life” and promising that he would be “goin in his mouth” the next time the two had a confrontation. Jackson deleted the tweets, apologized and was fined by the NBA. The real punishment was dispensed here, though, as Ibaka finished with game highs of 25 points and 17 rebounds to go with three blocks while shooting 10-for-16 in 39 minutes. He was also a plus-24.
Ibaka is a nightmare cover for a Spurs frontcourt that has plenty of talent but not the right skills to neutralize him consistently. Ibaka’s athleticism, length and leaping ability present a tough matchup for a vast majority of the league and San Antonio is no exception. Boris Diaw, DeJuan Blair and Jackson simply can’t compete athletically; Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter stand a better chance but face other matchup issues if they play together and OKC goes small.
Like teammate Russell Westbrook, Ibaka is at his most effective when he’s maxing out the relentless meter. That was the case here. He gets love for being able to hit the mid-range jumper, and he was 5-for-8 on jumpers, but he cleaned up inside, too, through dogged effort, with five baskets in the restricted area. Again, like Westbrook, Ibaka has the ability to wear on his mark and, as a game or series progresses, wear on the opposing team as a whole.
During the 2012 playoffs, Ibaka put up his best numbers against the Mavericks (11.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 blocks, 64.5 percent shooting) and Spurs (12.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 58.3 shooting), two teams with front lines that he could simply overwhelm. Flush with a new contract and more playing time, he’s pushed his scoring average from 9.1 points last season to 14.2 this year, improving his shooting efficiency and maintaining his place as the league’s premier shot-blocker along the way. Short of praying he gets into foul trouble, it’s unclear whether San Antonio can solve the Ibaka puzzle.
• This Thunder winning streak is something else. Of the 11 teams that OKC has beaten since Nov. 24, only four are currently above .500: Utah, Brooklyn, Indiana and San Antonio. Of that group, beating the Spurs, now 19-7, was the most impressive.
What do we expect from great teams? That it takes care of business against the league’s weaker sisters and not play down to the level of its competition. That’s what Oklahoma City has done. Eight of the 11 wins have come by double digits. Three have come by 20 points or more, highlighted by the 114-69 demolition of the Bobcats (45-point margin of victory). In sum, the Thunder are averaging 109.4 points while conceding just 95 during the streak, good for an astonishing 14.4 average winning margin.
There are tougher times coming, for sure, as eight of these 11 wins came at home and the Thunder have played nearly twice as many games in Oklahoma City as they have on the road (15 to eight). Soft schedule or not, they’ve spent the last three weeks gettin’ it done.
• The indestructible Westbrook pushed himself to the physical limit again during the third quarter, drawing a defensive foul on Blair as he attacked the basket at full force. Westbrook’s lower body contacted Blair’s shoulders in such a way that Westbrook went sprawling head first to the paint, catching himself slightly with both arms before his upper body smacked the hardwood.
Somehow, Westbrook popped right up and even made both free throws. DailyThunder.com reported that Westbrook was wearing a splint on his wrist, but he doesn’t expect to miss any time. He’s well into superhuman territory now, having played in 336 consecutive games (every game during his four-plus-year career) even with his pedal-to-the-metal style. Take a look at Monday night’s sequence below.