- Series hub: Grizzlies-Thunder
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Serge Ibaka on Sunday delivered a challenge, more to himself than to the tough Memphis Grizzlies’ defense.
“If they play the same defense they play on me like [Game 3],” Ibaka said, “I think next game, it will be a different story.”
The reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder’s survival is dependent on it. Their 6-foot-10 power forward transformed himself into a terrific mid-range shooter this season, a welcomed progression for a team that lost James Harden. But Ibaka has clanged a lot of rim this postseason. The Thunder could make up for it against Houston in the first round, but Memphis is a different animal, and with Kevin Martin also struggling, OKC’s offense, with Kevin Durant accounting for 37.4 percent of the scoring, is grinding its wheels.
Ibaka is missing easy inside looks such as the two dunks in Game 3. He’s missing contested jumpers and he’s missing wide open jumpers.
“I’m trying,” said Memphis forward Zach Randolph, the prime defender on Ibaka when asked if he feels he’s contesting the majority of Ibaka’s jumpers. “But he has missed open shots. He has.”
For the playoffs, Ibaka is 12-for-48 from the outside the paint. In this series alone he is shooting 30.8 percent overall. This from a player that shot a career-best 57.3 percent overall during the regular season and shot better than 50 percent from four of the seven areas recorded on shot charts from outside the key to the 3-point arc. In only one area, from the left wing, did he shoot below 46.9 percent.
After Memphis executed down the stretch to pull out the 87-81 win and take a 2-1 lead in this semifinal series, Durant suggested that Ibaka’s issues are mental.
“We can’t let him put too much pressure on himself. It’s all in his mind,” Durant said. “If he thinks he is going to make those shots, then he is going to make them. I have to pick him up and that is what I have been doing.”
Ibaka didn’t disagree with Durant’s assessment, suggesting that it is normal to have a dip in confidence when the shots aren’t falling. But he said that mechanically he feels fine and that he’s getting shots from spots on the floor that he normally would with Russell Westbrook pushing the tempo and running the halfcourt offense.
“Right now, for me, my focus is on this game,” Ibaka said. “Like people say, if you think about the past you cannot get better in the next one. So I am trying to do the best I can to forget about the last game and be aggressive.”
His shooting slump has not dulled his defensive effort as he takes on the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randolph, one of the league’s toughest low-post covers. Ibaka held Randolph to eight points on 4-for-12 shooting, and one offensive rebound in Game 3. He has 20 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
After Randolph blew up the Clippers for 20.8 ppg on 56.8 percent shooting, he’s averaging just 13.8 ppg on 42.5 percent shooting against Ibaka, Nick Collison and at times Kendrick Perkins, who has his hands full mostly with Marc Gasol.
“Serge has missed some easy shots, a couple of layups, a couple of dunks,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There’s nothing you can do about it but step up to the plate and be ready to do it again. Whether it’s in his head or not, I don’t know. I think if we can get those same shots for him, I believe in the work that he puts in, that he can make his next shot.”