OKLAHOMA CITY – To quote the introduction from “The Six Million Dollar Man“: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Serge Ibaka will be that man.”
The Thunder’s power forward might not come back better, stronger, faster, but Ibaka, fighting all odds to defeat a Grade 2 calf strain sustained just 10 days ago, appears set to rejoin his now-desperate Oklahoma City Thunder teammates for tonight’s Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals (8:30 ET, TNT).
“The most important thing against this team is defense. I’m sure you saw the last two games in San Antonio,” Ibaka said Sunday morning after going through his first workout with teammates since the injury on May 15. “So we really need a defensive mind tonight.”
Ibaka said the Thunder, with or without him, are ready to put a charge into this so-far lopsided series.
“You are going to see tonight,” Ibaka said. “You are going to see tonight.”
Ibaka was ruled out for the remainder of the postseason just nine days ago. Just five days ago he said he couldn’t even walk. Now, with the help of round-the-clock treatment and the power to submerge the considerable pain with great fortitude, the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Ibaka seeks to reclaim the paint the San Antonio Spurs have owned in consecutive blowouts for a 2-0 series lead.
It certainly seems a formality now that Ibaka will be introduced in the Thunder’s starting lineup tonight. It will surely ignite a deafening roar from the 18,000 OKC faithful, and potentially provide the Thunder an emotional spark they need.
“I remember when the doctor told me I would not be able to play in the playoffs, I cried,” Ibaka said. “Because it’s something I was not really looking for. I always enjoy playing with my teammates, I always enjoy playing basketball. When the doctor told me you are out for the playoffs, it was hard for me. So right now to be able to be back and have an opportunity to play tonight, it feels great, it feels great.”
During the shootaround, Ibaka said he ran defensive and offensive plays with his teammates and later he went through a round of jump-shooting in front of reporters. His accuracy was on point from all angles, but he noticeably avoided putting much pressure on his left leg upon landing. And he has still done very little running up and down the floor.
“I tried to move a little bit this morning with my teammates and I like I say, I feel better today than I did yesterday,” Ibaka said. “So that’s most important.”
He said the plan now is to wait and see how his calf reacts to the increased activity and then make a decision about playing tonight. He flatly stated that the final call to play tonight is “my decision.” That could indicate that team doctors have already given him the green light.
When asked if Ibaka practiced with the team this morning, Kevin Durant played it coyly, saying, “I don’t remember.” Russell Westbrook had a bit better recollection: “He moves fine, he moves well. He’s taking his time and we’ll see how he feels.”
Asked if he believes Ibaka will be able to help the Thunder, Westbrook mocked laughter as if to suggest the question was preposterous.
“What was our record when we play with him? He only missed two games, that’s it,” Westbrook said. “That’s a funny question.”
As Ibaka said, his most-needed contributions are in reversing the trend in the paint, where the highly efficient, ball-moving Spurs have scored 120 points in the first two games, and even out lopsided numbers on the glass. Before this series, the Thunder had won 10 of the last 12 games against the Spurs with the athletic intimidating, shot-blocking Ibaka keeping San Antonio’s paint production greatly in check.
But just how effective can he really be playing on a calf muscle that remains painful and far from 100 percent?
That is the six-million-dollar question.