OKLAHOMA CITY – Serge Ibaka pointed to the sky, soaking in the cheers from the adoring home crowd moments before coming out of a game that just a few days earlier, he never imagined he could play.
He scored 15 points in a dramatic return from what was thought to be a season-ending left calf strain, helping the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs 106-97 on Sunday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Ibaka started after missing the first two games of the series. The Thunder originally said he would miss the rest of the playoffs, but changed course Friday. His presence helped the Thunder dominate and cut the Spurs’ lead in the series to 2-1.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks took Ibaka out with 3:17 remaining and the Thunder ahead by 20.
“When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want in a teammate,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “I gained so much more respect for Serge for sacrificing himself for the team. Regardless of what happened tonight, that’s something you want beside you.”
Ibaka made six of seven shots and was a threat that gave Durant and Russell Westbrook relief. Westbrook had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and Durant added 25 points and 10 rebounds.
On defense, Ibaka was a strong physical presence who blocked and altered shots and used his still-formidable mobility to close out on shooters. He had seven rebounds, four blocks and a seemingly endless amount of energy.
“Serge has put so much work in throughout the season that missing a couple of days didn’t hurt him,” Westbrook said. “Tonight, he jumped right back into where he was.”
Manu Ginobili scored 23 points and Tim Duncan added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Spurs.
Game 4 is Tuesday night at Oklahoma City.
The Thunder outrebounded the Spurs 52-36 after losing the battle of the boards in the first two games. San Antonio, which shot at least 50 percent in the first two games, shot just 40 percent on Sunday night. The first two games looked like a layup drill for the Spurs. This time, they were forced to reset numerous times. The passes were not as quick or as easy.
“I was very disappointed that we didn’t come out with more of a foot-in-the-neck sort of attitude,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “They killed us on the boards, they beat us in 50-50 balls and that’s very disappointing to me.”
San Antonio won Game 2 112-77, leaving the Thunder humiliated.
“I knew that we were a better team than losing by 30,” Brooks said. “It’s not us. It was us that night, but we’re a much better team than that. I have a lot of respect for San Antonio, but they’re not that much better than us.”
Things were different from the start with Ibaka’s return. Brooks also inserted speedy Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup in Thabo Sefolosha’s place. Jackson finished with 15 points.
“We bounced back tonight. We always talk about that bounce-back ability and we had that tonight,” Brooks said.
The crowd roared when Ibaka’s name was announced during pregame introductions, and it got even louder when he started playing. He had eight points, three rebounds and two blocks in just over six minutes of play in the first quarter.
Twice in the final minute of the first half, Ginobili hit 3-pointers, and both times, Westbrook answered with a 3-pointer. The last one, with 0.6 seconds left, gave the Thunder a 57-53 lead. Oklahoma City shot 56 percent in the first half but turned the ball over 12 times. Ginobili had 20 points and made 5 of 7 3-pointers before the break to keep the Spurs close.
Oklahoma City extended its lead to 83-76 at the end of the third quarter. A runner by Durant, then a 3-pointer by Caron Butler pushed the Thunder lead to 90-76 with just over 10 minutes to play.
“Hopefully we realize that if we’re not intense, not very sharp and don’t hustle like crazy, we’re not going to win here,” Ginobili said. “They showed us reality. Hopefully we react in game four and play a much better game.”