With 11 seconds left in a 117-all barn-burner between Ibaka’s old club, the Thunder, and his new employer, the Orlando Magic, Frank Vogel did something for Serge that didn’t happen a whole lot while he shared the floor with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook: the Magic’s head coach drew up an end-of-game play for the Congolese big man.
Evan Fournier triggered the inbounds to point guard Elfrid Payton, who took the ball to half-court as the action began to unfold. Fournier cut right to left across the 3-point arc, drawing Thunder defender Andre Roberson along with him. As Fournier passed, center Nikola Vucevic, who’d been stationed at the right elbow, turned to set a screen for Ibaka as he ran from the left elbow to the right side of the floor. Oklahoma City’s big men switched the screen as Payton made the pass, leaving Ibaka one-on-one with former frontcourt running buddy Steven Adams.
Ibaka caught, faced up, took two hard dribbles to his right and pulled up, getting Adams into the air to contest. But Ibaka pulled the ball down with a pump-fake, waiting until Adams had descended on his contest before raising up with just under two seconds remaining. His 9-foot baseline jumper splashed softly through the net with 0.4 ticks left, and Oklahoma City couldn’t answer, giving Ibaka the game-winning bucket in a 119-117 Magic win.
The triumph represented a pretty amazing bit of personal history for the 27-year-old power forward:
… and, for what it’s worth, a pretty satisfying bit of catharsis after the Thunder shipped him to Orlando on the night of the 2016 NBA draft in exchange for guard Victor Oladipo, forward Ersan Ilysaova (since jettisoned to Philadelphia) and the rights to rookie forward Domantas Sabonis.
“He didn’t say it, but I know that Serge was getting himself up for this game tonight,” said Magic reserve point guard D.J. Augustin, who also used to play in Oklahoma City, according to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. “Nobody likes to get traded, especially when you’ve been somewhere so long.”
Of course it feels good. After all, the game-winner was just the cherry on top of a brilliant performance by Ibaka, who scored a career-high 31 points on 13-for-19 shooting (his first 30-point game in the NBA) to go with nine rebounds and four blocked shots (all of which came in the first quarter) in 37 minutes against his old mates:
“Coach called my name, and I was ready,” Ibaka said after the game, according to Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press. “I work on my shot every night and every summer, so I was just ready to make a play.”
It’s something Ibaka hasn’t always been able to do in the early going this season. He entered Sunday averaging a fairly quiet 12.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 28.3 minutes per game as a member of the Magic, and was coming off a 3-for-12 shooting performance in Friday’s loss to the Utah Jazz. But Ibaka was absolutely ready for his return to Oklahoma, bedeviling defenders Sabonis, Adams and Nick Collison with an array of shots — short hooks from the post, catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, fadeaways on the baseline, 18-footers with a hand in his face — that sure seemed motivated by something more than just wanting to snap Orlando’s three-game losing streak.
With Ibaka leading the way, and the backcourt of Payton (23 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, two steals, a block and a career-high three 3-pointers, all coming in the fourth quarter) and Fournier (21 points on 7-for-10 shooting, five assists) carrying the Magic offense late, Orlando had just enough firepower to withstand yet another unreal onslaught from Westbrook:
The Thunder’s rampaging point guard turned in his league-leading third triple-double of the season, pouring in 41 points on 14-for-21 shooting with 16 assists, 12 rebounds and just two turnovers in 38 minutes of work. It’s also his 40th career triple-double, drawing him within three of tying LeBron James and Fat Lever on the all-time list.
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It was a characteristically hell-bent-for-leather performance for Westbrook, one that saw him slip through cracks in Orlando’s pick-and-roll coverage, bull his way to the rim, earn trips to the line and set the table for his big men. He dragged Oklahoma City back from a 21-point first-half deficit to give the Thunder a chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the final minute.
Westbrook also, however, missed a free throw with 44 seconds left (one of his five misses on the evening) that would have given OKC a four-point lead, leaving the door open for Fournier to tie the game at 117 with a triple from the right wing on the next Magic possession. And he missed a pull-up jumper from the top of the key with 11 seconds left to give Orlando the chance to win it — a chance his longtime running buddy Ibaka wouldn’t let slip past.
“Special performance I’m sure [Ibaka will] remember the rest of his career,” Vogel said after the game, according to Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. “Big time player, that’s why we went out and got him.”
Thunder boss Sam Presti needn’t necessarily lose sleep over it, not with Oladipo, Sabonis and Ilyasova-swap-product Jerami Grant all young, hard-charging and contributing in Serge’s stead. But for one night, at least, Ibaka offered a reminder of what the Thunder are missing without him — and, maybe, what he might have been had circumstances and pecking orders shaken out a little differently.