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The Nuggets have had trouble slowing down Serge Ibaka in the postseason.
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Ibaka emerging as potential third star for Thunder

By Chris Tomasson, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 24 2011 10:53AM

DENVER -- One might think Serge Ibaka grew up dreaming of having an NBA playoff game like the one he enjoyed Saturday night.

Actually, the Oklahoma City forward never had even seen a playoff game on television until after he left his native Congo for Spain five years ago at the age of 16.

"I can't say when I was in Congo, no,'' Ibaka said. "When I was young ... I didn't even know there was playoff.''

Well, a lot more folks in the Congo might know about the NBA playoffs now than prior to Saturday. In Game 3 of a Western Conference first-round series at the Pepsi Center, Ibaka totaled 22 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks in Oklahoma City's 97-94 win over Denver, which gave the Thunder a commanding 3-0 lead.

Ibaka, 21, seemingly gets better every day. He sure has in this series. Ibaka had three points, five rebounds and four blocks in Game 1 and 12 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in Game 2 before Saturday's explosion, which he called the best game of his life.

"He was the difference maker,'' Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said of the 6-foot-9 Ibaka, a second-year man who averaged 9.9 points and 7.6 rebounds during the regular season. "He knocked down his shot when he needed to, he attacked the glass, he blocked shots, he changed the game. You've got to give him hats off. He was the best player on the court besides (Kevin Durant) and Russell (Westbrook).''

Not that it's a good idea to disagree with the constantly scowling 6-foot-10, 280-pound Perkins, of who Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks says "when he takes his kids to school he has an attitude.'' But Ibaka was the best player on the court Saturday.

Durant and Westbrook scored 26 and 23 points, respectively, but shot a combined 13-of-37. Ibaka was 6-of-13 from the field and 10-of-10 from the foul line.

Consider Ibaka shot just 63 percent on free throws as a rookie before climbing to 75 percent this season. He's at 93 percent so far this postseason.

As noted above, Ibaka the Shot Blocka gets better every day. Or perhaps he gets better every minute.

"The sky's the limit for him,'' Durant said.

Durant and Westbrook are Oklahoma City's two superstars. Perhaps they'll have to move over one day to create room for a third star in Ibaka, who already has helped his Q rating by being in the dunk contest last February during All-Star Weekend.

Ibaka scored the Thunder's final points of the game on a dunk for a 97-94 lead with 10.5 seconds remaining. That bucket sure was needed as Oklahoma City came close to kicking away getting its first playoff road win since the franchise moved from Seattle in 2008.

The Thunder had led 94-84 after Durant made a pair of foul shots with 49.3 seconds remaining, but soon Oklahoma City gave away a turnover and missed three of four free throws. Nuggets guard J.R. Smith, meanwhile, was busy hitting three-pointers with 23.3 and 14.6 seconds left to cut the deficit to 95-94.

After Ibaka's dunk, Smith launched a long three-pointer from the right side just before the buzzer that could have tied the score. It banged off the backboard, with Smith insisting to an official he was hacked by Thunder guard James Harden.

"I thought it would have had a better chance of going in if I didn't get fouled,'' Smith said. "Unfortunately, they didn't call it and the game is over ... I guess they didn't call it because he was planted or whatever. But if somebody hits your arm, I think you still have to call a foul.''

That play concluded a most interesting week for Smith. After playing just seven minutes in last Wednesday's Game 2, he said his team "didn't have a pulse'' on Thursday and that there's a "strong possibility'' he won't re-sign with the Nuggets this summer as a free agent. He backed off those comments Friday, but after Saturday's game admitted, "It's been a frustrating week.''

"They're embarrassing us,'' Smith, who scored 15 points in 14 minutes off the bench Saturday, said of what the Thunder is doing to the Nuggets.

It's been going on for longer than just this series. Including regular-season games April 5 and April 8, the Thunder is 5-0 against Denver this month.

No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. The Thunder would just as soon wrap up matters Monday, which could give players plenty of rest before facing the winner of San Antonio and Memphis in the next round.

"The biggest thing is staying humble and focused in Game 4,'' Perkins said. "The hardest thing is closing a team out. The (Nuggets) have too much pride to go out 4-0.''

But they also don't seem to have a way to contain Ibaka. In Game 1, the Nuggets watched as Durant and Westbrook combined to score 72 points. In the past two games, the Nuggets have paid more attention to stopping the two All-Stars, but Ibaka has averaged 17.0 points and 14.0 rebounds.

Scoring by Ibaka is still considered a bonus by Brooks, but the coach knows he always can count on Ibaka's defense, which is a big reason Denver is shooting just 42.4 percent in the series, including 37.2 Saturday.

"Serge, he protects the basket,'' Brooks said. "He does not like you to score. When we make a mistake, he covers up for us.''

Ibaka did that Saturday, altering as many shots as he blocked. But he also looked good on offense, drilling a pair of jump shots.

Worried about Durant and Westbrook, the Nuggets had no choice but to leave Ibaka wide open.

"I'm just trying to do my job for us,'' said Ibaka, who took over as the Thunder's starting power forward after Jeff Green was traded Feb. 24 to Boston in the deal that landed Perkins. "I try to play good defense and get the confidence to play good offense.''

Ibaka, from the capital city of Brazzaville, is the first native of the Congo to play in the NBA. Ibaka's country should not be confused with the bordering Democratic Republic of the Congo, which used to be known as Zaire and produced former NBA star center Dikembe Mutombo.

Mutombo had some impressive NBA playoff games during his 18-year career. That includes averaging 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds in the 2001 Finals for Philadelphia against the Los Angeles Lakers.

But don't ask Ibaka about that series. He didn't even know then there were NBA playoffs.

Chris Tomasson has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can reach him at christomasson@hotmail.com or on twitter.

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