By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — On the morning of his remarkable return to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound warrior admitted, through deep, dark brown eyes, that he had cried.
Doctors had told Serge Ibaka that his left calf was so badly damaged that he would not be able to play anymore. As the Thunder moved on to the Western Conference Finals, Ibaka sat alone, contemplating what all the hard work had been for, as tears streamed down his cheeks.
It was then that Ibaka determined that what the doctors say does not have to be. He decided the physical pain could be dulled by ice bags, by gnashing molars, by his strong faith and stronger will. The mental anguish of sitting it out would leave a much longer-lasting scar than any injury could.
“Pain is pain,” Ibaka said after the Thunder’s 106-97 Game 3 victory sliced the San Antonio Spurs’ series lead to 2-1. “I don’t want to be here talking about the pain.”
And so Ibaka, 10 days after sustaining a Grade 2 strain of his left calf, nine days after being ruled out for the entire postseason and five days after not even being able to walk on his own, barreled through the Spurs and in 29 minutes, 36 seconds of action transformed a series.
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook fed Ibaka on the team’s opening possession. He rose from 19 feet and swished it. Then again from 20 feet. And again from 18. And then he put it on the floor, drove and dropped in a feathery floater. The crowd roared with raucous approval as Ibaka exited at the seven-minute mark with eight points, three rebounds and two blocks.
“Oh, man, I was so nervous, but you can’t really tell because I was on the court,” Ibaka, his voice full of emotion, told a throng of reporters after receiving 45 minutes of treatment. “I just want to thank my teammates. Thank Russ, he got me going early in the game, Kevin [Durant], Perk [Kendrick Perkins], Reggie [Jackson], and I will never stop thanking them for tonight. I will never forget it. It was very special tonight.”
Just like that, an Oklahoma City team adrift found its bearings and was humming again. Ibaka would finish with 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting, seven rebounds, four blocked shots, many more altered, and even a steal.z
With 3:17 showing on the clock and the Thunder up by 18, Ibaka would leave the court pointing his right index finger high toward the sky all the way to the bench, absorbing deafening adulation from a crowd that greeted and left him with a standing ovation, and then finally walking into the open arms of awed teammates.
“When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want your teammate to embody … a guy who gives himself up for the team, gives his body up for the team,” said Durant, who had 25 points on 8-for-19 shooting and 10 rebounds. “No matter how this game would have went tonight, I gained so much more respect for Serge for laying it all on the line for us, putting his body out there and sacrificing his health for the betterment of the team.”
Ibaka worked out on the practice floor with teammates Sunday morning for the first time since suffering the injury on May 15. He warmed up during pregame, testing the calf, but said he wasn’t sure he’d make it in the game until he started running and feeling it out.
When he subbed out, he kept the muscle warm by riding a stationary bike and on occasion retreated to the locker room with medical staff for additional work to avoid stiffness.
“When I started running, I started feeling, getting a lot better,” Ibaka said. “I started moving a little bit better early in the game so I told coach, ‘Yeah, I can keep going.'”
Another alteration to the starting lineup paid dividends as well. Jackson, the backup point guard, replaced slumping shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup, giving OKC another quick attacker. He posted 15 points, five assists and four rebounds in a team-high 36:56. Little-used Jeremy Lamb contributed 15 solid minutes, providing OKC yet another long, athletic body to throw at San Antonio.
But this night was all about Ibaka and his value to his team against this particular opponent.
The oldest adage in the NBA says the playoffs are all about matchups, and suddenly with their defensive anchor again patrolling the paint, it was as if a totally different series had broken out. Tim Duncan, no longer free for walk-up layups, was 7-for-17. Tony Parker, who finally found resistance awaiting him in the lane, was 4-for-13 for nine points, four assists and four turnovers.
Ibaka’s presence fueled his entire team. They were active defensively, aggressive offensively, shooting 22 free throws in the third quarter alone. The Spurs, who had run a layup line in the first two games for 120 points in the paint, got 40. They shot 39.6 percent from the floor after shooting near 54 percent in Games 1 and 2. They had 16 turnovers after averaging just 11.
“Serge is always great in the paint,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He blocks shots. He changes shots. He did a fine job.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks was asked if one player can really make such a profound difference, turning two losses by a combined 52 points into a blowout the other way.
“You didn’t watch the last three minutes of the game?” Brooks deadpanned, referring to an 11-2 finish by the Spurs’ bench players after Ibaka finally subbed out. At the morning shootaround, Westbrook laughed at a question asking if Ibaka could help if he played, and he shot back: “What was our record when we play with him?”
When Ibaka plays against the Spurs, the Thunder have now won six in a row and 11 of the last 13 games going back to the 2012 West finals when Oklahoma City won four straight after falling into an 0-2 hole in San Antonio.
Ibaka was asked if he believed he lifted his team.
“You tell me,” he said. “I was just trying to do my job, stay focused and do the best I can do to help my team. So you tell me.”