Funny what two games can do to memory. Funny how you can forget what a ballteam is supposed to look like. What a ballteam does look like, when it has a loaded chamber.
Easy go. Easy come.
Serge Ibaka returned to the Thunder lineup Sunday night, and he didn’t come gingerly. Ibaka arrived with a roar. Four baskets, two blocked shots, two rebounds in the first five minutes. A state that had gone from nervous to hopeful at the news Ibaka could return from a calf injury went from hopeful to detonating as the Thunder rode the emotion of Ibaka’s recovery and the return of his talents to a 106-97 Game 3 victory over the Spurs that wasn’t nearly that close.
And suddenly, the realization returned. Oh, yeah. When these guys have their team, they’re good. Really good.
Remember how the Celtics of a few years ago liked to say they were unbeaten with their team? Won the NBA title in 2008, lost in the ’09 playoffs after Kevin Garnett was injured and lost in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals after Kendrick Perkins was sidelined in Game 6? Then they traded Perk in 2011 and that was that.
This Thunder squad is stout when it has its team: 6-1 in playoff series since 2011. The Thunder lost to Memphis last year without Russell Westbrook and was doomed against the Spurs without Ibaka, but now San Antonio is quaking in its spurs, memories of the Thunder’s 2012 rally from two games down in the Western Conference Finals rattling all along the 464 miles down Interstate 35.
“It’s an emotional game,” said Scotty Brooks. “You get frustrated when you get your butt kicked, and if you don’t, you don’t have a team that’s good. You should show that emotion and that passion when you’re down. I love the fact that we came back and we played a better game.”
Ibaka made sure the emotion cascaded from the rafters. But his return was more than emotion. Ibaka blocked shots (four) and altered untold others. He scored 15 points and missed but one shot.
Plus, Brooks added Reggie Jackson to the starting lineup. Jackson played 37 good minutes, not getting hurt on defense, and suddenly, this wasn’t just the Thunder having its team back. This was the Thunder having a new-and-improved version of its team back.
“Definitely helped having a lineup change,” said Kevin Durant, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds but wasn’t asked to bear the burden he did in San Antone. “Having Serge back is a big plus, and then having another attacker on the floor in Reggie, somebody that can create for everybody and also create for himself, is good.”
This series remains in the Spurs’ control. To win the West, the Thunder has to win two more home games and somehow get a split of two games in San Antonio. Not easy. But not impossible. And impossible it was before Ibaka returned.
“He was incredible,” said San Antonio magician Manu Ginobili. “For having sat out awhile and being considered out, he started the game hot. He made a few jumpers, we had to adjust. But we took the hit well, considering the emotion that he brought to the game.”
That’s the thing. The Thunder didn’t win this game on emotion. This wasn’t Willis Reed limping out just before the buzzer to invigorate the entire island of Manhattan. The Thunder actually trailed after one quarter Sunday night.
Ibaka brought energy to the fan base and hope to his teammates. But the tangible benefits he supplies is of paramount import. Ibaka is a difference-making ballplayer.
“Serge is a great player,” Brooks said. “He’s been a big part of our success. We’ve won a lot of games and won a lot of series with him.”
And looked lost in two games without Ibaka. Now he’s back. The Thunder has its team. Series on.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1.