When the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka to the Magic on the night of the 2016 draft, it was an implicit acknowledgement that the franchise had passed him by. Oklahoma City had just pushed the Warriors to the edge of elimination in the Western Conference Finals behind the strength of their own Lineup of Death, an arrangement that left Ibaka adrift, orbiting the game rather than impacting it.
That series was perhaps final confirmation for the Thunder that a player once viewed in the great lineage of shot-blocking big men had devolved into a glorified three-point shooter. (32 of the 72 shots—45 percent—that Ibaka took versus the Warriors were from behind the arc.) The Thunder, for whatever reason, were never able to unlock the offensive versatility Ibaka’s potential hinted at, so the career high 31-point performance—which included the game-winner with 0.4 seconds left—he dropped on their heads last night is going to leave a bruise.
Ibaka, for one game at least, looked like the player Oklahoma City never really seemed to see. He stretched the floor, hitting two threes and some face-up jumpers—typical Serge Ibaka things—but he also scored frequently near the basket he had drifted away from over his time in Oklahoma City. On one play he got run off the three-point line but calmly drove to the basket for an and-one layup, and he also flashed fluid moves in the post.
It was all a prelude to having his number called by Frank Vogel with the game tied 117-117 with 10 seconds left on the clock. Ibaka came off a screen, got the ball at the elbow, drove Adams down to the baseline, pump faked, raised over him and sank the game-ender.
Speaking in the locker room afterwards, Ibaka told reporters, “I’m not going to lie to you, it feels good,” though as his reaction to stuffing Adams twice at the rim earlier in the game revealed, he wasn’t exactly trying to hide his satisfaction at sticking it to his old team.
For a franchise that shipped off James Harden and squandered Kevin Durant, giving up on Serge Ibaka will obviously never be seen as some sort of fatal mistake. But a 31-point, nine-rebound, four-block game that erases a 41-16-12 triple-double from Russell Westbrook nonetheless asks the same question: What if?