Two games into the Western Conference semi-finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers, and it is clear that Serge Ibaka is giving Blake Griffin as much as he can handle on the defensive end of the floor.
Blake Griffin is coming off the best overall season of his career, one that found him third in MVP voting behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He is a huge part of what the Clippers do on offense, and his ever-expanding array of post moves has given him one of the best offensive repertoires of any big man in today’s NBA. When he’s at his best, Griffin likes to get the ball in the deep post, pull out one of his spin or other post moves, and finish as close to the basket as possible. His jump shooting game has developed as well, and he can hit mid-range jumpers at a fairly efficient rate. When he is in the post, he prefers to go right and finish at the rim. If that isn’t an option, Griffin can spin back left and hit a turnaround jumper – some of which he banks in – but he doesn’t drive nearly as often to the left. Here is just one example of what Griffin wants to do when he takes the floor, from November:
On that play, Griffin seems to hit an awkward shot, but it’s one he feels comfortable with. He hit shots like that time and time again throughout the season. He doesn’t have the traditional smooth post play of a classic big man, but he gets results nonetheless. The spin to the right and right handed layup is the key. That is Griffin’s number one option, and it worked well in the play above.
Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s top defenders, knows about all of this. He has played against Griffin, studied film and talked to his coaches about it. The game plan is pretty clear: make Griffin work from as far away from the basket as possible, and don’t let him go right. Look at the set up on this play by Ibaka:
He leaves the baseline open for Griffin, but it is to his left, which is how Ibaka is forces him into taking a more uncomfortable shot than he would normally prefer. The end result is shown below. Griffin takes a two handed layup type thing and misses by a large margin:
The other way the Thunder have taken advantage of this matchup is by forcing Griffin to take jump shots just outside of his range. Griffin has taken 15 uncontested shots (per SportVU via NBA.com/stats) in the first two games of this series, but he’s only managed to make 5 of them. Normally, an uncontested shot for a decent mid-range shooter leads to a decent percentage, but again, he’s being forced a few steps back, and feels less and less comfortable driving after each and every Ibaka defensive stand. Griffin settled for a jumper in the photo below. Take a look at how far he is from the basket, and how much space Ibaka chooses to give him to entice him into taking the shot:
Ibaka’s ability to frustrate Griffin has led him to take not only ill-advised jumpers, but has also forced him into a couple of shots in the post that weren’t particularly makable, even for a talented finisher like Griffin. One of the key things Ibaka has done has been staying grounded most of the time and not biting on Griffin’s pumps, fakes, spins and general physical play. Griffin has drawn 13 fouls on Thunder players over the last 2 games, which have led to 18 free throws, but only 2 of those fouls have been called on Ibaka. Watch how Ibaka prevents Griffin from going to his right while not leaving the ground in the GIF below:
He gives Griffin his left the whole time, but Griffin tries to force his way right anyway, towards the center of the paint. Ibaka just holds his ground, and doesn’t even jump to contest the final jump hook. Griffin is so awkwardly positioned when he jumps for the shot he ends up missing, but Matt Barnes is able to follow for the easy lay in.
Ibaka has guarded Griffin on almost every possession Griffin has ended up taking a shot in through the first two game of the series. Griffin has been held to 38 points on 29 shots in the series overall, but only 14 of those points have come when Ibaka has guarded Griffin, and it has taken 21 shots to do it (plus 2 free throws).
The Clippers have had considerable success with Griffin when Ibaka has not been guarding him, something the Thunder need to avoid at all costs moving forwad. Kevin Durant and Caron Butler have been abused on their few tries in the post, while Steven Adams has picked up foul after foul. The only success the Clippers have managed to have with Griffin while he has been guarded by Ibaka has been with pick and rolls (or pick and pops). 8 of Griffin’s 14 points against Ibaka have come from these scenarios, as Chris Paul has managed to pull Ibaka way out of position, and Griffin has filled the open space with expert precision.
The one foul on Ibaka – and ensuing technical – which led to two of Griffin’s “Ibaka points”, came when the Thunder decided to go small and have Durant try to guard Griffin. Not only is Durant not capable of doing this, but Westbrook ended up getting switched onto Griffin, forcing Ibaka to help off of DeAndre Jordan and get called for a foul. Griffin has only managed 4 points on the 15 shots he’s taken when he is in a 1 on 1 situation against Ibaka, and they’ve all come while settling for a jumper, an atrocious result for a true offensive superstar. Griffin has managed 0 points in the post – yes ZERO – when guarded directly by Serge Ibaka. Below is a video of every Ibaka-Griffin possession that ended in a Griffin field goal attempt in the first 2 games of this series: