Wizards

Thunder's Ibaka not just about defense anymore

201301042135777136321-p2.jpeg

Thunder's Ibaka not just about defense anymore

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) After the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder faced a difficult question: If they couldn't afford to keep both league blocks-leader Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, which one would stay?

The Thunder ended up securing Ibaka with a long-term extension this offseason, providing the first signal that Harden's days in Oklahoma City might be numbered. With Ibaka's deal done, there wasn't enough salary cap space left to come close to Harden's demands and he was shipped off to Houston in a trade just before the season.

Meanwhile, Ibaka has quietly been giving Oklahoma City its money's worth. As one of the NBA's most accurate shooters, he's averaging a career-high 14.3 points and leading the Thunder in rebounding (8.5).

``I work hard. I try to do my best I can, getting better and better,'' Ibaka said. ``I don't want just to be like people used to know Serge Ibaka four years ago.

``Now is my fourth year in the NBA, so I try to get better at everything.''

When Ibaka first joined the Thunder, the expectations for the Republic of Congo native were minimal. Coach Scott Brooks repeatedly said his role was simply about playing defense and providing energy. That was a starting point after Ibaka was the 20th pick in the 2008 draft and spent an extra season playing in Europe to develop before heading to the NBA.

Since then, he's growing - not only developing his game but learning English. He earned an endorsement deal with Sprite around the time the player nicknamed ``Air Congo'' appeared in last year's slam dunk competition and threw one down after taking off from the free-throw line.

He moved into the starting lineup and led the league in blocks two straight years, even more impactful because of how his defense helped trigger Oklahoma City's fast-break offense with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Now he's getting more offensive chances with the departure of Harden, the NBA's top-scoring reserve last season. So far this season, Ibaka is averaging about five more points and his 2.9-block average is behind only Milwaukee's Larry Sanders.

``Obviously, his offensive game is expanded and he's still blocking shots and rebounding,'' said veteran Nick Collison, Ibaka's backup. ``But I think his focus is a lot better. Defensively, he's where he should be. He's not getting lost. He's been great for us.''

Ibaka's biggest offensive impact comes from offensive rebounds and springing free for mid-range jumpers when defenses crowd Durant and Westbrook on the pick and roll. It's a shot Ibaka has mastered over the past few years, taking dozens of them at the end of practice.

``He's a machine,'' Collison said. ``He's been that way since he's been here. He works and he puts in as much time as anybody. He's very serious about his work and it shows. He's improved a lot since he's been here.''

Earlier this season, Brooks said there may be no one on the team he'd rather see shoot a mid-range jumper. The statistics back him up. Ibaka is tied for fifth in the NBA, making 56 percent of his shots, and he's working toward improving his range to where he can reliably make a corner 3-pointer.

While he may never be the focal point for Oklahoma City, Ibaka is developing more ways to contribute to the NBA's highest-scoring offense.

``I know when you have a team with Westbrook and Kevin Durant, one of the best scorers in the league, every night you will not touch the ball but just be ready whenever it comes to you and try to make plays,'' Ibaka said.

Some of Ibaka's top performances have come in some marquee games for the Thunder. He matched his regular-season high with 25 points and had 17 rebounds in a Western Conference finals rematch against San Antonio and had 23 points and nine rebounds in Harden's much-anticipated return to Oklahoma City with Houston.

He has four 20-point games already this season, after having just two in his first three NBA seasons - along with a few in the playoffs.

``Now we expect it from him,'' Durant said. ``When he has a double-double, it's not like, `Breaking news: Serge had a double-double!' It's normal for him now. He's playing well for us, and we're going to need that from him all season.''

The Thunder went into the weekend percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers for the NBA's best record, with a difficult stretch ahead featuring 11 of their next 13 games on the road. It starts with a back-to-back set Sunday at Toronto and Monday at Washington.

``He's playing well. Teams are playing small against us, so he's hurting them on the offensive glass and he's making teams go big,'' Durant said. ``That's to our advantage when we've got the big fellas in there. He's doing a great job on the offensive boards, shooting the basketball well and he's just playing with a lot of confidence.''

Quick Links

10 must-see moments from Wizards' wild OT win over Blazers, including John Wall's Jordan shrug

screen_shot_2018-10-23_at_12.41.08_am.png
NBC Sports Washington

10 must-see moments from Wizards' wild OT win over Blazers, including John Wall's Jordan shrug

The Washington Wizards beat the Portland Trail Blazers 125-124 in overtime on Monday night. Here are five plays or moments worth revisiting...

1. We will get to the game, and we will get to many things done by the Wizards, but we begin with a moment from pregame. Apparently, it was Halloween costume night for the Blazers and Moe Harkless stole the show by dressing up as Tyrone Biggums from Chappelle's Show:

Adam Silver, if you're reading this, please institute a rule requiring every team to do a Halloween costume arrivals night. You owe us this.

2. Okay, now for the game. Kelly Oubre Jr. was one of the stars of the night with 22 points, six rebounds, a block and a steal.

Here is one of his first buckets, a shot off the glass that was not an easy one to get to go down:

3. In the first half, Bradley Beal picked up right where he left off last time he was in Portland when he dropped a career-high 51 points. He had 19 of his 25 total points in the first half, including this baseline drive after a nasty crossover:

4. Markieff Morris also had himself a night. He popped off for 28 points in 25 minutes on 9-for-15 from the field and a career-high six threes. This was an athletic move around the rim you don't often see from Morris:

Was that some jelly from Keef? Not bad.

5. John Wall had a relatively quiet night for his standards with 16 points on 5-for-16 from the field with nine assists. Here was his best play, one of his signature chasedown blocks:

6. Back to Oubre. He was feeling it and even got Steve Buckhantz to drop a 'Tsunami Papi' reference on the broadcast:

For Buckhantz, as Oubre would say, "the wave is free."

7. Beal went cold in the third quarter, missing his first seven shots of the second half. But he got his groove back when the Wizards needed it most.

This three answered a go-ahead shot by Nik Stauskas and forced overtime:

Beal was super pumped:

8. Two of Morris' six threes came in overtime, including this one to help seal the victory. Morris knocked one down with only 38.5 seconds left and it put the Wizards up by four:

9. Wall helped put the Blazers down for good with a bank shot from the elbow. Some might say it was lucky, while others would say he called game:

Wall even had to hit the Blazers with a Jordan shrug. Portland has seen that before.

10. The Blazers had a chance in the final seconds, but Otto Porter Jr. put the finishing touches on the win with this block on Damian Lillard's buzzer-beater attempt. Though Porter didn't have huge numbers - he scored 16 points - his fingerprints were all over this win:

What an incredible game. We can all agree the Wizards and Blazers should play more often. Well, maybe not the Blazers. The Wizards have had a lot of fun at their expense in recent years.

MORE WIZARDS NEWS:

Quick Links

Five observations from Wizards' 125-124 overtime win over the Blazers, including Markieff Morris' career night

usatsi_11499420.jpg
USA Today Sports

Five observations from Wizards' 125-124 overtime win over the Blazers, including Markieff Morris' career night

The Washington Wizards beat the Portland Trail Blazers 125-124 in overtime on Monday night. Here are five observations from the game...

Wild game, huge win: Though it was just the third game of the regular season, it felt like the Wizards needed this one. They had just lost their first two games to teams missing key players and battling through the second nights of back-to-backs. And up next is the defending-champion Warriors.

Lose this one and the Wizards could have put themselves in a very tough early season hole, but they rallied to overcome a sluggish offensive start to the second half to secure their first victory of the season.

Considering the alternative, this was about as important a win could be this early in the year.

Oubre showed some life: The shots finally started falling for Kelly Oubre Jr. After shooting just 5-for-16 from the field and 1-for-7 for three in his first two games, Oubre broke out with 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting and 3-for-3 from three in this one. He also added six rebounds, a steal and a block.

To his credit, Oubre didn't force anything out of frustration after the way he started the season. He began the night by calmly knocking down a three from the slot, then attacking the rim for a shot off the glass a play later. Oubre was aggressive getting into the lane and scored with both hands.

This was, quite easily, Oubre's best performance so far in 2018-19, including the preseason. He was active deflecting the ball on defense and played controlled, intelligent basketball on offense. 

There were many plays he made that won't show up in the box score that helped lead the Wizards to their win; deflections, a huge charge taken in the final minutes of overtime. He was absolutely locked in.

Now, there were some lowlights. Oubre let several players get by him too easily, including Evan Turner and Jake Layman. Oubre has the tools to stay in front of those guys. But all in all, Oubre made a big difference in this game and that was good to see.

Morris balled out: While Oubre had his best game in the past few weeks, Markieff Morris may have had his best performance in a Wizards uniform. The Wizards forward exploded for 28 points in 25 minutes with nine rebounds, a block and a steal. He set a career-high with six threes made on 10 attempts.

Two of Morris' threes came in overtime, including one with 38.5 seconds left to put the Wizards up by four. His role in closing out the win in Portland brought back memories of his game-winner in the same building in March of 2017.

Morris is one of the biggest wild cards on the Wizards because it's not always clear which version of him they are going to get. When he's at his best, he's hitting outside shots and playing physical defense. He did that and more on Monday night.

With Dwight Howard out, the Wizards need Morris to step up. Though he didn't exactly do that in their first two games, Morris came to play in this one.

Beal went off early: This game was billed as the return of Bradley Beal to the Moda Center where he dropped a career-high 51 points last December. It took him a bit to get going, but once he did, Beal caught fire and scored at a pace that for a while was reminiscent of that amazing night.

Beal had 19 points in the first half on 8-for-12 from the field and 3-for-4 from three. But then he cooled off a bit in the second half and finished with 25 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and one block. He had zero turnovers.

Beal has now scored at least 25 points in five straight games against the Blazers. Clearly, he likes playing in Portland but one reason for his success against them may deal with C.J. McCollum. 

Beyond the fact facing one of the best shooting guards in the NBA may bring the best out of him, Beal is a tough cover for McCollum because he's more athletic. He's a tick faster and can get higher on his jumpshot. 

McCollum is an underrated defender, but Beal kept him off balance with well-timed pump fakes and consistently got open off screens. Beal's points were mostly within the rhythm of the offense. He was moving consistently without the ball and using the smallest of separation to get his shots off.

Beal also deserves credit for his defense against McCollum. The Blazers star was limited to 13 points on 5-for-25 from the field and 1-for-9 from three. 

Damian Lillard also had a rough shooting night. He had 29 points, but on 7-for-21 from the field and 2-for-10 from three. Many of his points came at the free throw line where he went 13-for-15, 13 of his attempts in the first half.

Two centers are now hurt: The day began with head coach Scott Brooks sharing some bad news about Howard, who not only did not make the trip with the Wizards but is likely to miss at least several more games. Not too long into this game, they lost their backup center, too.

Ian Mahinmi was subbed out after getting two quick fouls and never returned. He went to the locker room to get treated with back spasms, leaving the Wizards perilously thin at the center position. They had to rely on Jason Smith and using forwards Markieff Morris and Jeff Green in small-ball lineups. Thomas Bryant still didn't get the nod.

Back spasms do not sound serious, but any time Mahinmi is unavailable puts a strain on the Wizards. It brings into focus the fact the Wizards have not one, but two roster spots currently vacant. 

 

MORE WIZARDS NEWS: