By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — In the fading minutes of the fourth quarter, with the game as out of reach as the moon, there was Manu Ginobili making his way gingerly toward the locker room while carrying a shoe in one hand.
Anything to be worried about there?
“He’ll be fine or he’s out for the playoffs,” cracked Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “You’ve still got to have some fun even if you lose. Come on, it’s basketball. Yeah, we wanted to win, but I want to laugh too.”
In the laugh-to-keep-from-crying department, it might as well have been open mic night at the Improv with the Spurs having more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
That is, if your taste runs for toward the insult humor of Don Rickles, Andrew Dice Clay and Ricky Gervais.
The Spurs were hilariously ineffective defensively, hysterically inept rebounding and farcical in the pursuit of loose balls.
It will be a night remembered for the return of Serge Ibaka to the lineup nine days after a calf injury had the Thunder organization all but putting him on life support.
A Power Serge, they’ll call it.
The pogo stick power forward gave OKC immediate life with his jumper, his long arms that contested shots and his joyous zeal for controlling the middle.
With Ibaka back on the floor covering the paint like a drop cloth, suddenly the path to the basket was no longer a revolving door for the likes of Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
In fact, the only Spur who acquitted himself at all was the limping Ginobili, who scored 23 points and said there should be no concern over sore foot that’s been nagging him for a while.
Ibaka gave the usually raucous crowd at Chesapeake Arena a reason to crank the volume up to 11, emboldened his teammates to be more aggressive and take more chances on the perimeter and, well, he did go 6-of-7 from the field, too.
What Ibaka did not provide was an excuse for the Spurs to be lifeless as much as helpless, seemingly disinterested as much as discombobulated.
After thumping the Thunder by 17 and 35 in the first two games of the series, the Spurs might have seen the short flight to OKC as a waste of their time and they played like it.
“I was very disappointed that we didn’t come out with more of a foot-on-the-neck sort of attitude,” Popovich said. “They killed us on the boards, they beat us on 50/50 balls, and that’s very disappointing to me. That’s not the way you approach a game.”
It shockingly bordered on unprofessional from a Spurs team that usually plays like it’s wearing a crisp white shirt and tie.
It began with Parker, the point guard/ignition switch who neither got into the middle to cause havoc with his scoring and passing, nor could find the range on his outside shot. Tim Duncan was tepid. Leonard was passive and Green — fresh off nailing seven 3-pointers in Game 2 — seemed lost.
When the Thunder missed a shot, they simply went and got the ball back off the glass, owning the backboards by a 52-36 margin and owning every area of the game. The Spurs had their worst shooting game of the playoffs — 36-for-91 — and a horrid second quarter in which they turned the ball over five times, allowing OKC to take control of the game.
The Spurs have lost eight consecutive games in OKC. They were so unsure and unable to attack the basket with Ibaka back in the lineup that they were practically doubled up in free throws — 31-16 — by the Thunder.
A listener outside the locker room door — or perhaps a resident of Nebraska — could easily hear Popovich on a paint-peeling, ceiling-rattling six-to-eight minute postgame tirade.
“No different,” Parker said. “He usually tells us what he thinks.”
What many will start to think now is back to the last time the two teams met in 2012, when the Spurs rolled into OKC with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals and an overall 20-game winning streak and then found themselves out of the playoffs eight days later after four straight losses.
“No, no,” said Parker. “That’s a different year. That’s a different team. What we have to do is come out and play better.”
What they have to do is come out and play. Period.
“Look, you can spin it or twist it any way that you want,” Duncan said. “They just beat us.”
That too. No joke.