OKLAHOMA CITY -- Serge Ibaka has grown up in more ways than one. The chiseled specimen that is the 6-foot-10, 235-pound shot-blocking machine has also learned how to play better man-on-man defense, and he showed it to Dirk Nowitzki.
A year ago Ibaka, just 22, had no clue how to attack Dirk on the perimeter. He was burned by the fallaway and by drives because he was off-balance and guessing. In Monday's Game 1, Ibaka proved to be a difficult defender for Dirk to shake. And then in crunch time, OKC coach Scott Brooks made the switch to the scowling, 270-pound Kendrick Perkins, aided by swarming guards when Dirk attempted to the put the ball on the floor.
It led to a terrible beginning and end for Nowitzki, who started the game 2-of-9 from the floor and ended it with a couple of turnovers in the final 90 seconds with Perkins breathing on him and the guards collapsing to take the ball away.
"He's an improved player," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Ibaka, who also terrorized Dallas at the other end with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting that included six dunks and six rebounds. "You've got to give him his props for how he's developing, how they're developing him. He's more than just a shot-blocker."
Ibaka still had a game-high five of those despite most of his 39 minutes spent shadowing Nowitzki. OKC feared that using Ibaka to guard Nowitzki removes him from his comfort zone as a rim protector. Ibaka frustrated Nowitzki at the end of the first half when Nowitzki reacted to what Carlisle later called grabbing and holding by Ibaka, but the call went against Dirk with 12.5 seconds to go.
Then Ibaka drained just his third career 3-pointer from the top of the arc with 1.4 seconds left to cut the Mavs' lead to 51-48 at the half.
All-in-all, Nowitzki had 25 points, but also just two more buckets (8-of-18) than turnovers (six). Those are numbers OKC will take every time.
Putting Perkins on Nowitzki in crunch time seemed a bit curious if only because Ibaka had done a solid job and Perkins seemed an easy victim of a Dirk dribble penetration. But the Thunder had experimented with the matchup during the regular season, and that would not be the case as Nowitzki twice lost the handle against Perkins' stout frame.
"It’s nice to give a guy a different look," Brooks said. "You give a star player like Dirk, the guy has seen everything, he’s seen every type of defense on him and he always seems to have 25 to 28 points. It’s just nice to give him another player and Perk’s a different player. He’s more physical, he gets into the body more, but Serge did a good job also. I like the fact that Perk got in there and made him miss some shots, but our hands were active , too, and other defenders were getting in there and swiping at the basketball."