Harden, Ibaka know their roles

Heat forward LeBron James drives to the basket between Thunder forward Serge Ibaka and guard James...

Heat forward LeBron James drives to the basket between Thunder forward Serge Ibaka and guard James Harden during Game 2 of the NBA final at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla., June 14, 2012. (JIM YOUNG/Reuters)

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:43 AM ET

OKLAHOMA CITY - Teams seldom get this deep into the playoffs without everybody knowing and accepting their role.

Stars tend to be stars — and starters for that matter — others lend helping hands and still others sit on the bench, coming in only sporadically.

In Oklahoma City, things are a little bit different. While everybody accepts their lot in life, two players who would be front and centre just about anywhere else are pushed to the background behind the omnipresent glare of three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant and two-time all-NBA second team member Russell Westbrook.

James Harden comes off of the bench for the Thunder, even though he would be the standout player and leading scorer on the vast majority of NBA squads.

Most would chafe at the assignment, but not the former No. 3 overall selection.

When asked by reporters whether he was comfortable being a sixth man, Harden’s response was simple: “If we’re in the finals every year, yes sir. As long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters in this league,” Harden said.

When queried whether he likes his role, Harden again responded in the affirmative: “I do, on this team, coming in, changing the game with my fire offensively and defensively. (Assistant coach) Mark Bryant always tells me whenever you come into the game change the game whether you’re getting a steal for an easy layup or scoring the ball whatever it may occur just change the game and that’s what I try to do.”

Everybody on the Thunder has bought in. Yes, winning has much to do with that, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

Even though Oklahoma City was still not winning consistently upon his arrival, Serge Ibaka still quickly recognized — and accepted — his situation.

The NBA leader in blocked shots was smart enough to figure out that he needed to carve out a niche in order to get everybody’s attention.

“When I first got to the NBA my intention was not to be a shot blocker, my intention was to be a good player in the NBA. When I got to a team where you have one of the three best scorers in the league and one of the guys who has (the) ball every time, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, I need to do something to get minutes. I need to do something to help my team. I need to do something to make my name,’ ” Ibaka said.

“So that’s when I started to be focused on defence because everybody can’t shoot 20 shots. You need to be ready to do something that can keep you on the court, keep the confidence of your coach and your teammates.”

That doesn’t mean Ibaka never had any doubts about whether his plan would be successful.

For reinforcement, Ibaka asked his agent about another Congolese shot blocker, Dikembe Mutombo.

“Sometimes I ask my agent, ‘So, Mutombo was an all-star just for blocking shots, playing defence? He say yes,’ ” Ibaka said with a laugh, drawing further chuckles from his audience.

“That kind of stuff, when I heard it, gave me some motivation to keep playing defence.”

While Harden and Ibaka are star-quality role players, two traditional role players — Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha — also are instrumental in the club’s success.

Sefolosha has bothered the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker and now, LeBron James, in these playoffs with his defensive abilities — while also hitting some key shots — and Collison is an under-the-radar glue guy who does all kinds of things well.

“We don’t think (Game 1) was decided by size. I don’t think Collison is the biggest player on the court, but he had an incredible impact on the game with his motor, his engine, his relentlessness,” marveled Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra after Collison made some big plays down the stretch to help seal the Thunder victory.

But you’ll never hear Collison, Harden, Ibaka — or even top dogs Durant or Westbrook — patting themselves on the back for individual jobs well done.

It’s all about team.

“Whatever it takes to win, that’s the mindset each and everybody on this team has,” Harden said.

“The (win) is all that matters now. It’s not about individual performances our guys know that and we’re going to do whatever it takes.”


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