LOS ANGELES -- Oklahoma City's season ended in this round a year ago, when Russell Westbrook was injured, and Kevin Durant was alone. Durant was the point guard, the power forward, and everything in between, dribbling the ball down court, then shooting it, and invariably doing the whole thing all over again on the next possession. The Thunder, with Westbrook out and James Harden in Houston, had been reduced to a one-man show. It was easy to forget their other supposed star, power forward Serge Ibaka, because he looked like a $50 million flyswatter. For all of Ibaka's growth as an offensive player, he didn't crack 38 percent shooting in that semifinal slog against the Grizzlies, and the Thunder dropped the last four games. Without Westbrook, the onus was on Ibaka to help Durant, and he fell short.
Ibaka's field goal percentage actually dipped this season, but he averaged a career-high 15.1 points, and he is now shooting higher than 60 percent in the playoffs. If the Thunder is going to win the title -- and survive a Grizzlies/Clippers/Spurs/Heat gauntlet -- they will need more than Durant and Westbrook. When the Thunder extended Ibaka in 2012, they envisioned a Big Three, and Friday night Ibaka took a leap toward joining the others on the marquee. Of course, Durant and Westbrook were spectacular (59 points, 19 assists, 16 rebounds) but Ibaka made the difference in a 118-112 win over the Clippers at Staples Center. He sank nine of 10 shots and chipped in 20 points despite foul trouble almost from the outset.
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The matchup between Ibaka and Blake Griffin may settle this series. Through the first two games, Griffin was 12 of 29, trying to bulldoze Ibaka and finding him virtually immovable. In Game 3, Griffin changed his strategy, facing up more often to use his speed. He drew two quick fouls on Ibaka, plus a third before halftime, and punished his replacements. Griffin poured in 34 points, but the Clippers were still out-rebounded for the third straight game, and they were also out-scored in the paint. "He's a great player," Ibaka said. "It's always good to play against the best. I'm sure he enjoys playing against me, too."
Because Durant and Westbrook command so much attention, Oklahoma City always has open shooters. Whether those shooters take advantage is another matter. On Friday, Durant and Westbrook were drawing and kicking, the Clippers defense was lagging on rotations, and Ibaka was burning them for leaving him alone. He is not a prototypical stretch four, and the Thunder could use another floor-spacer, but Ibaka has increased his range to the extent that he must be respected from outside. "We have to do a better job getting to him," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
The Thunder takes great pride in the development of Ibaka, since he was drafted 24th out of Spain in 2008, and they barely acknowledge his disappointing postseason a year ago. "I think I had the rough playoff," said head coach Scott Brooks. But Brooks admitted that he did see some evidence of Ibaka's maturation. "A couple years ago, if he got two quick fouls, his game would have been a little dicey coming back in," Brooks said. "But he competed. He wasn't worried about his fouls."
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Oklahoma City, tested by Memphis in the first round and blown out by the Clippers to start the second, has responded with two resonant wins. The Thunder is looking less like the team that limped out of the conference semis last season and more like the one that reached the Finals in 2012. They gave up seven free throws in the last 30 seconds of the third quarter, with Reggie Jackson fouling Chris Paul as he attempted a three-pointer (then adding a technical for arguing the call) and Durant fouling Jamal Crawford on a half-court shot with .3 seconds left. Brooks covered his head with his hands. The Thunder term such gaffes "bad moments," but this time, they overcame them all.
Leading by one with 2:10 remaining, Westbrook drilled a three-pointer from the top of the circle, and then Durant sank a 22-foot fade-away over Paul that iced the game for Oklahoma City. It was the exclamation point three days after The Speech. "You grow from experience," Durant said. "Having been here before, it's helped us all out." The Thunder is still young, but no longer the prodigies they once were. Durant and Westbrook are 25, Ibaka 24. Over the past four years, they have lost in the first round, the second, the third and the Finals. Such is the natural progression of a NBA champion. The only step left is to never bow out at all.
NBA Playoffs: Starting five underrated playoff performers
Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger breaks down his starting five underrated playoff performers of the 2014 NBA playoffs.