Serge Ibaka walked off the court at Chesapeake Energy Center on Sunday with 3:17 left in the game and his team up by 20 points. Pointing up to the sky, the big man received a standing ovation from the Oklahoma City crowd. He high-fived his teammates on the sideline, knowing that this Western Conference Finals series is now winnable, that the San Antonio Spurs are beatable.
The final score was 106-97, but that doesn't do justice to how Ibaka and the Thunder had their way with the Spurs.
With Ibaka nursing a calf strain that was supposed to keep him out for the playoffs, Oklahoma City lost Game 1 by 17 points and Game 2 by 35. It was obvious from the beginning that Game 3 would be different. Ibaka made the first shot of the night, and three more in next four minutes, including a contested runner that looked more like something Kevin Durant would attempt. The energy and emotion were expected, the immediate offense was not.
"He was incredible," San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili said. "For having sat for a while and being considered out, he started the game hot. He made a few jumpers, we had to adjust."
Ibaka ended up with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, plus seven rebounds, four blocks and one steal. He didn't attempt a 3-pointer, but his range caused problems for San Antonio. He couldn't move quite as fluidly as usual, but his defensive presence cannot be overstated. The Thunder are used to having Ibaka protecting the paint, so they were able to guard with more confidence on the perimeter. They were more together, more connected and they held the usually deadly Spurs to 39.6-percent shooting.
"Serge is a great player," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "He's been a big part of our success. We've won a lot of games and won a lot of series with him. We obviously missed him the last two games, but that's part of the sport. You have to deal with the injuries, we're disappointed we didn't play better. We're a prideful group of guys and we bounced back tonight."
San Antonio averaged 60 points in the paint in the first two games, and managed just 40 in the third. Not all of that is Ibaka, but he played a huge part.
"He makes you think twice about going in there," Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook said.
Brooks said he had no doubts about what Ibaka would bring after watching him work out on Saturday and hearing that the doctors cleared him to play. Durant said Ibaka was everything you could want out of a teammate, and regardless of the result he would have gained respect for him for putting his body on the line.
It's possible the Thunder could have made it a 2-1 series without Ibaka. They were at home, it was a game they needed and the Spurs didn't bring their A-game. With him, though, Oklahoma City was able to both make it a series and make a point. The Thunder, with their length and athleticism and a better-spaced floor, poses problems for San Antonio. They completely outclassed their opponents this time. With Ibaka, they won't go away easily.