Photo by Torrey Purvey
By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY – Serge Ibaka spent seven seasons in Oklahoma City. In that time, he was a cornerstone in helping the Thunder reach amazing heights.
Despite that, Ibaka was traded away in the offseason when it was thought his skills had diminished and he could no longer help the Thunder.
For one night, Ibaka made those thoughts seem silly. He got into a duel with former teammate Russell Westbrook as he led Orlando to a 119-117 victory at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
While Westbrook picked up his third triple double of the season, Ibaka scored 31 points and hit the game-winning basket.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Ibaka said. “It felt good. “You never know what happens. In a basketball game, anything can happen. For everything up to now, I just want to thank god. It was not easy and the emotions to be back home here and to see fans. I used to play here for seven years. I also want to thank my teammates and the coaches just to have the confidence.”
Ibaka shot 13 of 19 from the field, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked four shots. Elfrid Payton added 23 points while Evan Fournier scored 21.
“Everybody was very happy for Serge,” Fournier said. “It was a very important game for him. He probably won’t tell you guys this, but I’m pretty sure it. After playing seven years in this city, you want to play good against that city and the team that traded you.”
Westbrook posted 41 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds. It was the first time in two years Oklahoma City has loss when Westbrook has reached triple double status.
Thunder center Enes Kanter came off the bench to score 16 points and grab eight rebounds. Andre Roberson scored 14 points to go with four blocked shots.
With the Thunder trailing by six in the fourth quarter, Joffrey Lauvergne began a 10-2 run by hitting back to back 3-pointers to give the Oklahoma City a 100-98 advantage.
Payton and Lauvergne exchanged 3-pointers before Westbrook nailed a midrange jumper. The Thunder came up with a stop and Westbrook fed Roberson an assist for an easy layup. Oklahoma City led 107-104.
Payton drove down the middle of the lane and was fouled. He missed both free throws. But Fournier tied the game with a 3-pointer on the next possession.
With 2:06 left, Westbrook drained a jumper with Ibaka guarding him. The Thunder then came up with a steal and Victor Oladipo scored on a fastbreak layup to give his team a 113-109 advantage.
Fournier nailed a pair of free throws and the lead was cut to two.
But Westbrook once again scored on Ibaka. Payton answered with a 3-pointer from the corner and the Magic were down 115-114.
The Thunder gave the ball to Westbrook again, and Ibaka fouled him while attempting a 3-pointer. He made 2-of-3 from the foul line and Oklahoma City went up 117-114 with 37 seconds. It didn’t last long as Fournier came down and tied the contest with another 3-pointer.
Westbrook tried to put the Thunder ahead with a shot from the free throw line. But it was off and the Magic got the rebound with 11 seconds on the clock.
There was only one person the Magic could go to. They gave the ball to Ibaka, who drove baseline and drilled a short jump shot over two Thunder big men with 0.4 left in the game.
“I was ready,” Ibaka said. “I was ready and coach called my name, so I was ready. I work on my shot every night and every summer. So I was ready to make plays.”
Oklahoma City attempted to throw an alley-oop to Westbrook but he was unable to complete the play to end the game.
“It’s only one game, but it feels great,” Fournier said. “Coming in and winning on the road against a very good team that started very strong., for confidence it is huge.”
Ibaka wasted little time in reminding the Thunder what they gave up when they traded him to Orlando. He hit 6 of his first 8 shots to score 13 first quarter points. He had been averaging only 12 a game on the season.
But Ibaka’s biggest presence came on the defensive end. He tallied four blocked shots in the quarter. That included two against Steven Adams on the same possession. Ibaka reacted with his double thumbs down sign.
“It was like normal,” Adams said of Ibak’s play. ‘He just plays for another team. Wasn’t nothing much more of it. He shot the ball well.”
Orlando led by as much as 21 points in the first half. The Thunder weren’t helping themselves by settling for 3-pointers. They made 2 of 12 in the first half alone.
But midway through the second quarter, Westbrook began to turn it on. He began attacking the paint and either scored or was fouled and sent to the foul line.
Oklahoma City cut the lead to 10 by halftime.
Despite the Orlando getting solid contributions from different players besides Ibaka, the energy and activity from Oklahoma City overwhelmed them in the third quarter. The Thunder outscored the Magic 37-25 to take a two point lead into the fourth quarter.
Despite how exciting and intense the game was for the players, Westbrook once again proved he is the leagues utmost competitors. Even when his old friend in town.
“For me, it’s normal,” Westbrook said of playing against Ibaka. “When I get on the floor I have no friends. Off the floor I’ll talk to him.”