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Serge Ibaka returns from ‘postseason-ending’ injury and transforms Thunder-Spurs series

May 26, 2014, 12:29 AM EDT

Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant

The Oklahoma Thunder were running out the clock in their Game 3 win over the Spurs, and Serge Ibaka was still on the court. Considering his injury, it appeared long past the time he should have been removed. Eventually, Kevin Durant left his seat on the bench and approached Scott Brooks.

“Get Serge,” Durant appeared to say.

Less than a minute later, Ibaka was pointing to the sky and walking to the bench as the Oklahoma City fans showered him with a standing ovation.

You can understand Brooks playing Ibaka too long. Thunder rolled the dice on Ibaka once already tonight, and the results were spectacular.

Playing for the first time since Oklahoma City ruled him out for the rest of the playoffs, Ibaka scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. The Thunder outscored San Antonio by 11 during his 30 minutes in their nine-point win.

“I try to do my best I can to be everywhere,” Ibaka said.

He sure did.

Showing only occasional effects of his strained calf, Ibaka proved crucial on both ends of the floor.

From the game’s very first possession, when he used his long arms and quickness to close successfully on a Tony Parker mid-range jumper, Ibaka disrupted San Antonio’s previously surging offense.

The Spurs have shot 64 percent in the paint with Ibaka off the court this series and 46 percent with him on it. They’ve also taken just 44 percent, as opposed to 53 percent, of their shots in that high-efficiency area against Ibaka.

Indirectly, Ibaka made a much wider defensive impact. The Thunder stuck closer to San Antonio all over the court, likely in part because they knew Ibaka was protecting the paint in case they got beat.

Offensively, Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers proved a critical tertiary option. He needed fewer than 12 minutes of playing time to outscore Oklahoma City’s non-Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook starters in Games 1 and 2 combined.

Other elements also changed from Games 1 and 2 – the series moved to Oklahoma City, and Reggie Jackson started – but Ibaka played the most-influential game of the 2014 playoffs so far. Considering the stakes and his injury, this could go down a legendary performance in Thunder history. Oklahoma City’s offensive rating (92.6 to 125.7) and defensive rating (116.8 to 98.7) turned around dramatically with Ibaka on the court from off it.

But Ibaka’s big night will be viewed as historic only if the Thunder win this series. They’re still down 2-1, and they need their ailing X-Factor to produce like this again in Game 4 Tuesday. That’s a short turnaround in the playoffs, and the emotional high Ibaka felt tonight will be reduced.

Ibaka changes this entire series. He doesn’t mean the Thunder will win it.

But he means they could.

  1. JMClarkent - May 26, 2014 at 12:51 AM

    That was a heck of a performance from a one-legged man.

  2. bballhistorian - May 26, 2014 at 1:52 AM

    The Thunder needed a Surge….

  3. thenew013 - May 26, 2014 at 2:01 AM

    Painkillers. You the real MVP.

  4. antistratfordian - May 26, 2014 at 3:00 AM

    I think the Thunder were going to win this game with or without Ibaka.

  5. jattsoorma - May 26, 2014 at 7:13 AM

    HGH, YOUR the real MVP.

  6. cruzan80 - May 26, 2014 at 7:32 AM

    Pop will make the proper adjustments…Spurs in 5.

  7. bucrightoff - May 26, 2014 at 8:10 AM

    The Refs deserve some love too. I mean 21-0 FT attempts in a quarter for OKC? Hmmm…..

    • obmig - May 26, 2014 at 9:19 AM

      foul calls were even, 1 team was just going to the rim hard and the other wasn’t

      • bucrightoff - May 26, 2014 at 11:06 AM

        Perhaps, but it is worth noting the game universally (well besides Laker fans) view as the most corrupt, illegitimate game in NBA history, Game 6 2002 WCF, the Lakers outshot the Kings by…20 free throws in the 4th quarter. Obviously here we have a bigger difference. If the score was closer than the final we got, no doubt we’d be talking about the officiating right now.

  8. jbeagles23 - May 26, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    San Antonio didn’t play aggressive at all

  9. trickybastard - May 26, 2014 at 12:42 PM

    Future NBA painkiller lawsuit…

  10. jolink653 - May 26, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    Thunder attacked the rim and played with more urgency than the Spurs did, simple as that. Having Ibaka on the court changes the entire game for OKC on both ends. Without him they get swept, with him, who knows. If he can stay healthy, the Thunder have a good chance at winning Game 4 and turning into a best of three series

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