NBA Finals: Serge Ibaka and Phil Jackson on LeBron James

Jun 14 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) fouls Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) as he drives to the basket during the second quarter of game two in the 2012 NBA Finals at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Serge Ibaka is an incredibly gifted athlete, arguably the most explosive and fluid big man in the NBA with arms that go for days.  He led the league in every block statistic imaginable this season by a sizable margin, outdoing all players in blocks per game, per 48 minutes, and overall.  Ibaka was voted First Team All-Defense by the league’s coaches and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, too, so it’s clear the consensus is he’s not a one-trick pony sort like Javale McGee or DeAndre Jordan.  Still, he has a ways to go as a defender to live up to those lofty accolades, namely in pick-and-roll coverage and his overall understanding of help defense, obvious when considering the Thunder routinely play Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison in his stead when looking for stops.  Which makes his following words on LeBron James all the more puzzling:

“LeBron is not a good defender.  He can play defense for two to three minutes but not 48 minutes.  LeBron can’t play Durant one-on-one.  They’re playing good defense like a team.”

Why Ibaka felt compelled to stoke the fire with his team’s back against the wall is anyone’s guess, as the Thunder are the type of team and organization that normally stray from such off-court bulletin board material.  Regardless and just as strange, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, one overvalued defender questioning the merits and reputation of a player universally and rightfully considered among the game’s defensive greats (James was the All-Defense Team;s leading vote-getter).  And considering the undeniably stellar job James did pushing Kevin Durant from his comfort zone in the fourth quarter of game 3, this hardly seems the time for such bravado.  All that said, this moronic and one-sided war of words obviously won’t have much influence on the actual game, as evidenced by James’ response.  “I don’t really care what he says. he’s stupid.  Everyone says something to me every series… It’s stupid.”  Duh.  It’s all interesting and dramatic between-game fodder for us nonetheless, though, and kind of embarrassing for Ibaka.

Phil Jackson, done disparaging the New York Knicks, is apparently a bit more fond of James’ game than Ibaka.  Guesting on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, a mustachioed Jackson offered this on James with subtext on his time coaching Kobe Bryant for the Lakers:

March 4, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) controls the ball against the defense of Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

“They’re using LeBron every possible way they can.  He’s such a great player.  I still think his game’s gonna grow… He was like Scottie Pippen to the Bulls.  Maybe a pass-first shoot-second player.  Whereas Michael or Kobe are like, “I’m gonna shoot this ball.” Every time they get the ball, they’re looking to score.  LeBron’s not like that and I love that about him.  But when he goes after scoring he’s also terrific.  You want a player that can do both.  I tried to get Kobe to do both for numbers of years and he could.  But his first instinct was to beat that guy that’s in front of him.”

There’s nothing like the Zen-Master waxing on Jordan and Bryant, as confusing and opaque as ever here as he normally is.  Of course, his relationship with Jordan was never as tenuous and rocky as his one with Bryant, and this – albeit lightly and without any vitriol – speaks to Jackson’s frustration with trying to mold Kobe into the team-first playmaker he knew would make the Lakers better.  You wonder how differently Bryant’s career would be remembered if he bought into Jackson’s pleas and was more of LeBron-type scoring distributor, and as his career enters it’s final stages it’s easy to believe Kobe and the Lakers would be better off if he had.  That’s obviously not how it went or how it’s going, though, and Phil will have to take solace in failing to re-brand Bryant by looking to his hand and noting the shine of the five championship rings Kobe was so instrumental in him winning.  Could be worse.