While Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may capture the most points and headlines for the team, it will be the play of power forward Serge Ibaka that determines how successful the Thunder are at achieving their high hopes.
Ibaka signed a four-year, $48 million extension during the 2012 offseason, and he has lived up to the hype during the 2012-13 NBA season.
The 23-year-old is putting up career-highs in points per game, rebounds per game, free-throw percentage, field-goal percentage and minutes. Any team would want one of their premium players to respond that way after receiving such a lucrative deal.
However, Ibaka can also disappear at times, particularly against teams that force him out of his comfort zone.
One of the biggest reasons for Ibaka’s increased scoring output is his much-improved jump shot.
He has shot an impressive 49 percent from mid range this season. That improved shooting mark has particularly benefited the Thunder in regard to the pick-and-roll.
Opposing teams had enough trouble trying to guard Russell Westbrook coming off of those screens. Now, they can no longer singularly focus on him. If they do, Ibaka will be ready to pop after the screen and sink a jumper.
While that is a great duality to have in a point guard and big man, Ibaka needs to continue to improve his skills in this area.
There are teams that are able to keep Westbrook out of the lane and still cover Ibaka popping off the screen. One thing he needs to learn to do is roll to the hoop for alley-oops and clean looks at the rim. The only area in which he shoots better than mid-range is at the rim, where he makes 73 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Another big aspect Ibaka could improve in is his rebounding. His current mark of 7.8 per game is respectable, but the truth is that he is capable of much, much more.
This problem largely has to do with how raw Ibaka still is as a player; he is still learning how to use his ridiculous athletic ability in the most efficient ways. However, he can take steps to do better this postseason.
One big problem the Thunder have had in their recent losses are giving up offensive rebounds. While Kendrick Perkins has received much of the blame among fans, Ibaka is also responsible.
He has to go back to the basics of blocking out. He is too athletic to be giving up offensive rebounds to some of the players he's been battling under the post.
The Thunder have a great shot at winning the West for the second consecutive year. However, Ibaka has to provide them with a big-man scoring threat and an improved rebounding effort.
Few teams can match the Thunder’s size, as they are bigger than average across their starting five. But that advantage will mean nothing if Ibaka cannot wreak the havoc he is capable of.
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