For a 22-year old man who speaks Lingala, French, Catalan, Spanish and English, one word in Serge Ibaka’s repertoire translates between all five languages: defense.
The third-year forward from the Congo was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team by NBA coaches on Wednesday thanks to setting a Thunder record 3.65 blocks per game in 2011-2012, the highest mark for any NBA player in over a decade. Ibaka finished with 47 points in the voting, which doled out two points per first place vote and one point for second place vote. Both his point total and 20 first place votes were the second most in the NBA behind LeBron James.
“It’s good for myself and for my team,” Ibaka said. “It’s something that really gives us more confidence to keep working on my defense, keep being aggressive and trying to help my team. Also, I want to thank all my teammates… (Kendrick) Perkins helps me a lot. Nick (Collison) also, Nazr (Mohammed), all the guys, it’s about team because they will trust me.”
Joining him on the NBA All-Defensive first team are James, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Tony Allen, but Ibaka was quick to give credit to his Thunder teammates for helping him this season. While Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed are wily veterans who have given out advice to Ibaka, it is the 6’10” forward’s work alongside Perkins that has drawn attention from teammates like Kevin Durant.
“He (Perkins) and Serge work so well together,” Durant said. “Ever since he (Perkins) got here, he was so excited to play alongside Serge. Their chemistry is getting better each season, each game.”
The duo of Ibaka and Perkins has been a difficult one for even the NBA’s best post players to attack, as the Thunder blocked a league-best 8.17 shots per game, the most for any team since 1993-94. Averaging 3.67 blocks and 6.1 rebounds per game in the Playoffs has been important on top of Ibaka’s regular season development in a wide variety of defensive tasks, like working with guard Russell Westbrook to prevent dribble penetration.
“He does things that not a lot of guys can do throughout the season (like) getting ten blocks a number of times,” Westbrook said. “He’s become a great pick-and-roll defender, help side he does a lot of great things defensively. I’m definitely happy for him.”
Ibaka blocked ten or more shots three times during this 66-game season, the first time that feat had been accomplished since Shawn Bradley did it in 1996-97. Ibaka also posted 12 double-doubles and led the Thunder in rebounding on 21 occasions. Perhaps the most memorable game this season for Ibaka were his 14-point, 15-rebound and career-high 11-block triple double in the Thunder’s Feb. 19th victory over the Denver Nuggets. Durant said he hopes Ibaka keeps up the defensive intensity throughout the playoffs and throughout his whole career, even saying that maybe Ibaka can best his second place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year award balloting in the future with more hard work.
“It’s a tremendous honor. It shows how much he’s grown,” Durant said. “He had a phenomenal year of contesting shots for us. He might not have blocked every single shot, but he put his impact on the game by contesting a lot of shots and changing a lot of shots. He’s done a great job for us on the ball, in pick-and-rolls and blocking shots at the rim.”