The Oklahoma City Thunder received devastating news before the 2014 Western Conference Finals, learning that a calf injury would likely keep Serge Ibaka sidelined for the rest of the playoffs. Game Three of their seven-game set with the San Antonio Spurs, however, saw the big man make a shocking return, changing the complexion of the series.
On Sunday night, Ibaka played 30 minutes, helping Oklahoma City win their first game in their series with the Spurs. Two days later, he’ll try to help the Thunder even up the series at two games apiece
"I think he's been overlooked to some degree in that (defensive) regard,” San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich said of Ibaka, according to USA Today. "But he also does what he does at the offensive end. I think he's one of the most gifted players in our league because he's a dual player. He does it at both ends of the court. But he's also a fine man, so that's a pretty great combination."
It’s difficult to overstate how much of an impact the power forward had in his first contest back. While he was on the floor, the Thunder outscored the Spurs by 11 points. He made six of his seven shot attempts, helping give Oklahoma City a nine-point victory.
The real test, perhaps, came the day after the Thunder’s victory. While Ibaka still isn’t completely healthy, he’s felt no ill-effects from playing in Game Three.
"The good news is I'm not feeling worse, so that's good," Ibaka said on Monday, via ESPN. "I'm sure every day I'm going to feel better every day, but I'm not expecting to feel much better yet tomorrow. One thing I know, I expect to do a better job."
With Ibaka on the court, the Thunder are able to change the way the Spurs play offensively. San Antonio wasn’t nearly as aggressive as they would have liked in their most recent loss. They missed just one free throw, but took only 16 shots from the line. In the previous two games, which saw the Spurs win by a combined 52 points, San Antonio averaged 20 free throws per game, and shot much better from the field.
Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks will likely continue to change what the Thunder lineup looked like in the first two games. Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha both started in Games One and Two, but failed to get on the court on Sunday. In addition to Ibaka, point guard Reggie Jackson stepped up, scoring 15 points and registering five assists.
If the Thunder want to tie up the series, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will likely have to outperform Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for a second straight game. Oklahoma City’s two stars combined to score 51 points on Sunday, compared to just 25 points from San Antonio’s top players.
Player To Watch: Serge Ibaka
Time: 9 p.m. ET
Place: Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV Channel: TNT
Online Stream: TNT Overtime
Point Spread: Thunder 2.5 points
Prediction: Oklahoma City 109, San Antonio 105