OKLAHOMA CITY — 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 also 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 imp-roving his range to where he can reliably make a corner 3-pointer.
While he may never be the focal point for Okl-ahoma 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.”
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