<
>

Serge Ibaka roasts the Thunder in his return to Oklahoma City

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There's a certain poetry in what happened Sunday night between the Orlando Magic and the Oklahoma City Thunder, a back-and-forth shootout that featured a 21-point comeback and a game-winning shot with 0.4 seconds left.

It was in Serge Ibaka scoring a career-high 31 points in his return to the franchise that traded him over the summer after seven seasons. It was in Ibaka's winning jumper which sunk the Thunder 119-117.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Ibaka said, "it felt good."

But it was also in Oklahoma City's exhausting performance, featuring a sluggish, confusing start and the manic comeback that followed -- with Russell Westbrook notching his third triple-double of the season (41 points, 12 rebounds and 16 assists) and 40th of his career.

Westbrook, as he has been so many different times this season, was sensational, particularly in leading the second-half charge. He re-entered with 7 minutes, 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter with the Thunder down six. In less than two minutes he had two points, three rebounds and three assists, and the Thunder led by two. In those final eight minutes, he scored or assisted on 25 of the Thunder's final 27 points. That included a number of apparent dagger jumpers, as well as the one that wasn't, a missed 20-footer with 11 seconds left and the score tied.

Westbrook was almost perfect in that fourth quarter, doing everything to propel the Thunder to a win. He missed a couple free throws and perhaps hoisted a bad jumper or two, but in terms of doing what most see as necessary for the Thunder to be successful, he answered the call, and then some. In the final six minutes, he took six of the Thunder's last eight shots. As he has this season, he assumed the responsibility of winning or losing in totality, with no in between.

The Thunder lost, so it might be tempting to draw the conclusion it was another overbearing Westbrook takeover attempt gone wrong. But that ignores how good he was and that the Thunder's offense didn't fail them in the final few minutes. The defense did.

"The biggest thing for us is we've got to develop a defensive identity that can be consistent and maintain," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "Our numbers look really good, but when you look deeper as a coach, you see certain things to be concerned about."

The numbers said the Thunder were elite defensively coming into Sunday's game. They ranked fourth in defensive efficiency and were top 10 in a list of other defensive stats. Their offense, as expected, has sagged well behind (26th entering Sunday) with any minute Westbrook not on the floor being a complete grind. The formula they leaned on was energy, effort and defense, with Westbrook doing enough in his 34 to 40 minutes to get the Thunder home. Against the Magic, Westbrook held up his end of the deal, and then some. The defense didn't.

The Thunder can win without Westbrook posting 40-point triple-doubles, but losing when he does is quite the gut-punch. Last season, Westbrook registered 18 triple-doubles; the Thunder went 18-0. In his 40, the Thunder are now 35-5. Counting the playoffs, 39-6. Everyone is well aware of their situation and how much more difficult it will be for the Thunder. Their margin for error has been considerably reduced, and Westbrook's burden cranked to an all-time high.

He got some support, with Enes Kanter scoring 16 points, Andre Roberson 14 and Steven Adams 13. But the three players on the roster acquired via Ibaka -- Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Jerami Grant (by proxy) -- combined to score 17. Ibaka had 31.

They made the move to deal Ibaka on draft night in an effort to strengthen their position in keeping Kevin Durant, adding Oladipo as a slashing two-way guard, Sabonis for more sustainability and, at the time, Ersan Ilyasova to recoup some of Ibaka's floor-stretching shooting. They also made it as insurance against Durant bolting, using the 27-year-old Ibaka, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, to get younger, and more stable.

Ibaka's production had declined the last few seasons, with his 2015-16 campaign being one of his worst in terms of shooting percentage and shot-blocking. He was often confused in Donovan's new system, caught second-guessing and hesitating between taking open jumpers and moving the ball. Ibaka often craved more of a role, believing he was an All-Star caliber forward if only given the touches. The feeling was Ibaka would look elsewhere in free agency anyway next summer, so they tried to sell high on one of the players general manager Sam Presti had labeled a "founding father" of the franchise.

Even with the trade, there's no grudge held by Ibaka, or the Thunder. Unlike the uncomfortable scene in Oracle a couple weeks ago when the Thunder took on another former teammate, Ibaka shook hands, hugged and chatted with Thunder staffers and players. He hung around after the game talking with local reporters who covered him for so many years. He talked with arena ushers and security staff. And as expected, Thunder fans gave him a raucous ovation in introductions.

But he got what he wanted most, a needed win for his new team, and did so in emphatic fashion. He could never eclipse the 27-point plateau in OKC, hitting the mark three times and always finding himself frozen out in the fourth quarter as Westbrook and Durant commandeered the offense. On Sunday, it was his ball, with coach Frank Vogel calling a play for him to take the game winner on his career scoring night.

The Thunder traded Ibaka to try to solidify their present, as well as their unknown future. They love the deal they got, an impressive haul in return, Sunday's results notwithstanding, with Sabonis flashing impressive skill as a rookie, Oladipo providing a scoring complement to Westbrook and now Grant adding wing athleticism and defense. And all under the age of 25.

But what they saw on Sunday was a reminder of what they once had, another ghost of Thunder past coming back to haunt them. He's just the latest added to the impressive tree of former players, along with James Harden, Durant and Reggie Jackson. The intoxicating star-power of the Thunder has been reduced to one. It's only Westbrook now, the last remaining starter from their 2012 NBA Finals team, trying to drag, pull and push his team to a win every night. And on Sunday, in the face of a career-night from one of the most faithful former servants of the franchise, a near perfect performance wasn't enough.