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Serge Ibaka's improved defensive instincts and timing

Serge Ibaka is becoming an elite anchor on defense for the Thunder. We examine the ways his on-court intelligence has improved.

Christian Petersen

Serge Ibaka is known as a shot blocker, leading the league in this category for three straight seasons, but his defensive rotations before he got blocked shots used to leave a lot to be desired. But as he's grown older, he's showed an increased awareness, and he is now a devastating weakside help defender for the Thunder.

It helps that he has a good foundation, of course. Defense is difficult to measure on an individual level, but opponent shot distance data is a great way to evaluate Ibaka's impact. Teams attempted field goals within 0-3 feet of the basket 2.2 percent more when he was playing, but also had an 8.3 percent field goal percentage decrease, according to NBA Wowy.

His leaping ability can be tremendous. On this play, Ibaka starts by aiding Russell Westbrook to defend Damian Lillard on a side pick-and-roll. Lillard makes the right pass out to LaMarcus Aldridge, but the play doesn't stop there:


Aldridge drives past Kendrick Perkins and kicks out to Nicolas Batum, who seems open. But Ibaka is in tune with the play and rotates over.


Batum drives past Kevin Durant, but Ibaka is reading the play and cuts off his path. Batum attempts the layup, but Ibaka swats it away:



Video of the play:

That leaping ability can produce some crazy highlights. Look how high he reaches to block Eric Maynor's layup attempt in the capture below:


He has learned to use that leaping ability well to protect the basket. Teams shot under 50 percent on layups when Ibaka was in the game, a drop from over 10 points from when he sat. Ibaka is great at straying far enough away from the rim to make it seem like there's a clear path and timing his jump and block attempt. Here are two minutes of film featuring Ibaka jumping around and blocking shots after rotating to challenge shots around the rim:

But as recently as the 2012 NBA Finals, Ibaka's defensive instincts were often subpar. The Heat took advantage of Ibaka's confusion often, such as here when Chris Bosh seized the opportunity to cut behind him, leading to a dunk.




Video of the play:

And here, where he loses track of Shane Battier, leaving him wide open for a three-pointer. When Battier passes to LeBron James in the low post and cuts across the key to the opposite corner, Ibaka starts to ball-watch:



Battier recognizes that Ibaka's attention has been pulled away and curls around to the top of the arc. James passes to Battier, who is alone on the three-point line. Before Ibaka can even attempt to recover, Battier sinks the open shot:



Video of the play:

But Ibaka cleaned those tendencies up this past season. On this play against the Celtics, Ibaka does a great job of rotating out to the perimeter and doesn't ball-watch. He stays with Paul Pierce curling around a screen set by Kevin Garnett and doesn't overhelp on Rajon Rondo.



Pierce doesn't have a clean look when he gets the ball, so he pump fakes once he catches it. But Ibaka doesn't bite, staying down after preparing to contest the jumper. Pierce then tries to drive, but Ibaka cuts off the attempt.


Pierce attempts a trademark step-back jumper over Ibaka, but he does a good job of challenging the shot and Pierce misses:


Video of the play:

That's how Ibaka has learned to combine his athleticism with better defensive intelligence.

The increased awareness Ibaka is showing on defense improved the Thunder's defense as a team. His ability to bait players into attempting shots at the rim when he's ready to contest them improved in his fourth season in the NBA. Teams know he's a shot-blocking machine, but he's still able to lure them over so he can shatter their shots with the palm of his hand.

Raw blocking numbers don't indicate how Ibaka is defending successfully, though. It's not just that he has a wide wingspan and can jump through the arena ceiling. It's the timing in his setups, decisive rotations and awareness of all five opponents around him that make those blocking numbers matter. He's taken massive steps in those areas and is poised to take even more.

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