By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Serge Ibaka isn't known for hitting clutch shots. In his short career in the NBA, those were always handled by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Yet Monday, Ibaka found himself in a position to hit a game-tying shot that would have sent Oklahoma City’s game with Houston into overtime. Unfortunately for him, his attempted put-back of Reggie Jackson’s missed shot was handled too gingerly.
The ball never made it over the lip of the rim, the buzzer sounded and Ibaka fell to his back in horror as the Rockets won 105-103 to avoid being swept out of the first round.
“I wanted to do my best to save my team,” Ibaka said. “It happened. I can’t control the emotion. It happens sometimes.”
It made for a long night for Ibaka.
“It was tough, it was tough. It happened and it was tough for me. It was my first time to be in that position. I didn’t sleep last night, man. It’s a great experience to go through that. Like I said, it’s my first time to be in that position. So now I know how it feels. Now I will move on. Good thing about it. We have one more game (today).”
The Thunder and Rockets hook up at 8:30 p.m. today for Game 5 of their best-of-seven series at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. With Oklahoma City leading 3-1, they have a chance to close out Houston with a victory and move on to the next round.
However, Ibaka knows his squad has to be more aggressive than what it showed in the last game.
“The focus is to be aggressive,” Ibaka said. “We need to be aggressive (today) and do a better job of controlling the ball on offense and stopping them. They had a lot of easy baskets in the paint.”
The Thunder are still trying to figure out what type of team they are without Russell Westbrook, who is out for the rest of the postseason. But that doesn’t change coach Scott Brooks’ emphasis on playing hard and smart on both ends of the court.
“We’re working through some things, but we all know how to play defense,” Brooks said. “That doesn’t change, no matter who you put on the floor. We know how to play offensive basketball. ... We’ve always believed in moving the ball and sharing the ball.”
By not putting Houston away when they had the chance, the Thunder now face a Rockets squad that has tasted postseason victory and will want more of it. The fact that they did it while James Harden had a subpar outing should give them even more confidence that they can come into Oklahoma City and steal another win.
“I told our guys before the game, ‘One thing about our team, we’re not going to lay down,’” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “They fought all year long.”
Even though the Thunder are playing short-handed, Brooks and Durant have not eased up on expectations. They want to put the Rockets away tonight and get ready for the next round.
“As players, coaches and as an organization, we’re very prideful in what we do,” Brooks said. “We know that we’re in a pretty good position. We won our two home games, went down there and split, and we have a chance for another game where we can close out the series.”
To do that, Durant is going to need help on the offensive end, and Oklahoma City’s defense will have to find a way to put the brakes on Chandler Parsons and the Rockets’ 3-point shooting. Most importantly, they have to stay in attack mode throughout the entire game.
“We need to a better job starting the third quarter,” Ibaka said. “In the last two games, they get hot in the third quarter and come back. We need to do a better job and take care of business in the third quarter.”
Brooks hopes being back at home will help the team stay enthused and focused for four quarters.
“Our fans love our players because they know that they’re going to give everything they have,” Brooks said. “It’s not always going to look pretty, but their effort and intensity and love for each other is going to always be displayed. We know it’s not easy, but it’s within reach.
“We know we have an amazing fan base and the arena is the best in the league. We know our guys are going to be fired up to play tomorrow. We still are going to have to execute defensively for 48 minutes.”
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