By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — OKLAHOMA CITY -- Playing with the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it would be hard to get any recognition. That has been the plight of Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka over the last few years.
However, there are those night’s when Ibaka’s performance even outshines his all-star teammates. That was the case Friday in the Thunder’s 116-94 win over the New Orleans Pelicans at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Ibaka racked up 16 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocked shots in only 30 minutes of action.
“When you have a 7-foot guy who can jump and run back on defense on the fast break, it’s hard to get to the basket,” Pelican’s guard Austin Rivers said of Ibaka. “There defense is all on him. Without Ibaka, this is a whole different team.”
The Thunder (58-21) now need one more win or a loss by the Los Angeles Clippers to clinch the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They can wrap it up Sunday when they face the struggling Indiana Pacers on the road. San Antonio has locked up the top-seed.
Durant scored 27 points and shot 10-of-18 to go with six rebounds and five assists. Westbrook added 24 points and seven assists. It was the second game in a row the team had all its starters back in the lineup.
“It feels good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Every coach in this league wants to have all their players healthy. It gives yourself the best chance to win. It’s nice to have everybody back. I thought Perk (Kendrick Perkins) and Thabo (Sefolosha) have done a great job.”
Rivers and Darius Miller led the Pelicans (32-47) with 18 points each. Forward Tyreke Evans scored 13 before leaving with an injury in the second half. Alexis Ajinca added 12 points and newly acquired forward James Southerland scored 10 in his debut.
The Pelicans started the night without center Anthony Davis and guard Eric Gordon. They then lost Evans and guard Brian Roberts to injuries in the second half.
It was all about the big three early on for the Thunder. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka scored all 30 of the team’s first-quarter points as Oklahoma City led by seven.
After trailing by double figures, the Pelicans found a way to cut the deficit to six.
However, Durant led the Thunder on a 16-9 run to end the half. That included him streaking down the middle of the lane for a tomahawk dunk and throwing an alley-oop to Perry Jones. Oklahoma City led 60-47 at halftime and had only four turnovers.
“We are just doing a better job of taking care of the ball,” Westbrook said. “Trying not to turn over. We know we can’t turn the ball over.”
The Thunder’s defense stayed at a high level in the second half and smothered the Pelicans.
Even when New Orleans thought it had an easy basket, the Thunder didn’t give up on the play. Midway through the third quarter, it looked like Rivers had an easy layup when he came up with a steal near midcourt. However, Ibaka chased him down and rejected the dunk attempt at the rim.
“He has great timing,” Rivers said of Ibaka. “And he can run the floor so well. Most big when a turnover happens, they hang back or they try to sprint but never get there. He’s fast enough to keep up with guards.”
The Thunder took a 25-point advantage into the fourth quarter and put the game away.
“I know as a unit, we feel comfortable playing with each other going into the playoffs.” Westbrook said.
Notes: Even though New Orleans coach Monty Williams had no opinion on the MVP race, he did have high praise for Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant. “He’s a very unique player. Reminds me of what Len Bias would have been if he played in the league,” Williams said. “I think he’s the most unique guy I’ve seen, like Alex English, Glen Rice, Len Bias, all these guys all in one. He does everything.” ... In cooperation with the Thunder, UNICEF and Serge Ibaka organized UNICEF Night on Friday. The fundraising and awareness project focuses on street children in the Congo who have been orphaned or separated from their families. Ibaka’s game shoes and jersey were auctioned to fans. “It is very important for me to try to give children a better present and a hope for their future,” Ibaka said. “I feel blessed that I was able to make a dream come true and play in the NBA, and I want the street children of Congo to have the chance to have a good future because they should be allowed to dream, too.”... Durant picked up a technical in the third quarter to bring his season total to 15. If he gets one more he will be suspended one game. Technicals do not carry over into the postseason.
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