Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Don't let the well-dressed folks at SportsCenter fool you. Oklahoma City's ten-game winning streak has just as much to do with Serge Ibaka as it does Kevin Durant.
Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, most of us perceived Ibaka as a stout defender with a long way to go offensively. But as you might expect from a man who stands nearly seven-feet tall (he's listed at 6-foot-10), the 24-year-old has made some huge strides.
Most of them have come on offense. Ibaka's 15.0 ppg scoring average this season is easily the highest he's recorded since entering the league in 2009.
During the team's recent 10-game surge (no pun intended), Ibaka has posted averages of 18.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 3.0 bpg on 63 percent shooting. During that stretch, Ibaka has been responsible for 17.1 percent of OKC's total points, up from 10.3 percent in his first 37 games. Together, he and Durant have accounted for 47.4 percent of the team's offense throughout the streak (Durant missed one game with a shoulder injury).
Ibaka has really brought the thunder (again, no pun intended) in his last five appearances. He's scored 20 or more in four of those five games including a perfect 12-for-12 shooting night Friday against Brooklyn. The 25-point effort matched his highest-scoring output of the season and he didn't even play the fourth quarter.
The explanation for all of this is simple. Without Russell Westbrook to defer to (he's out with a knee injury), Durant and Ibaka have had to take matters into their own hands. Just as Durant's 35.9 ppg average in January was a career-high, Ibaka's 16.4 ppg last month was also a personal best. Indeed, Ibaka attempted 13 shots per game in January, which is well above his career average of 8.1 field goal attempts per contest.
So does this mean that Ibaka will fade into obscurity again when Westbrook returns later this month? Well, not necessarily. In fact, when Westbrook missed time with a similar knee injury last postseason, Ibaka's numbers were actually better when Westbrook was in the lineup (14.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.5 bpg with Westbrook, 12.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.7 apg without him).
With Oklahoma City averaging almost 106 points per game this season, there's been plenty to go around. Durant and Westbrook will get their points and so will Ibaka. But what about Durant's well-documented stretch of 30+ points?
I wondered if there was any correlation between Durant's play and Ibaka's recent scoring binge. Turns out my theory of "when Durant plays better everyone else does too" doesn't explicitly apply to Ibaka. Though Ibaka had an excellent January, Durant's and Ibaka's best months haven't always coincided.
Since the opening of the 2009-10 season, Ibaka's first in the league, Durant has finished six months with a scoring average of at least 30 ppg. Here are Ibaka's scoring outputs during those months.
JANUARY 2014: Durant 35.9 ppg, Ibaka 16.4 ppg
JANUARY 2013: Durant 31.6 ppg, Ibaka 12.5 ppg
DECEMBER 2012: Durant 31.0 ppg, Ibaka 13.5 ppg
JANUARY 2011: Durant 30.5 ppg, Ibaka 9.5 ppg
APRIL 2010: Durant 34.6 ppg, Ibaka 10.0 ppg
JANUARY 2010: Durant 32.1 ppg, Ibaka 5.2 ppg
It looks like we're grasping at straws. Ibaka's hot streak, at least from what we're seeing, doesn't seem to be related to anything at all.
And that's the point. This isn't about Westbrook not being around or even Ibaka feeding off Durant's success. This is about Ibaka finally figuring it out after four and a half years of sidekick duty.
Of course, it's important to remember that even before we acknowledged Ibaka as a go-to scorer, he was already highly-regarded in the fantasy community for his elite shot blocking ability. Though his block totals are down for the second year in a row, fantasy owners could do a lot worse than Ibaka's 2.49 rejections per game, good for third-best in the NBA.
As it stands now, Ibaka is one of just two players in the league (the other being New Orleans forward Anthony Davis) averaging at least 15 ppg, eight rpg and two bpg. Tim Duncan (17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.7 bpg) and Dwight Howard (17.1 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg) were the only players to accomplish the feat last season.
Applaud Durant all you want. Just make sure you save some praise for Ibaka. He certainly deserves it.
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