Perhaps out of habit — or because the autopilot switch had been flipped with the media around — Kevin Durant mentioned Serge Ibaka when rattling off teammates who missed good looks in Game 1.
It was a slip of the tongue that he quickly corrected.
“Sorry,” Durant chuckled. “I miss my buddy Serge.”
Get in line, KD. It’s a winding path that includes the entire state of Oklahoma, a group of basketball-crazed fans who never appreciated their 24-year-old rim protector more than Monday night. With Ibaka back in OKC nursing a calf strain, the Spurs roamed free, scoring 66 of their 122 Game 1 points in the paint.
“Serge is out and he’s not coming back,” coach Scott Brooks definitively stated postgame. “…He’s not walking through those doors.”
That’s the message Brooks and his players keep preaching. Next man up. An eye to the future, without Ibaka.
But if the Thunder can extend this postseason run long enough, there remains a lingering hope that Ibaka might actually be able to return at some point. Despite an “out for the postseason” diagnosis, Thunder GM Sam Presti left the door open the day he announced the injury, calling a return “unlikely” but not out of the question.
Then, on Tuesday morning, Yahoo! Sports NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski released a report that Ibaka is “defiant and determined” to get back as quick as possible, citing a source that told him the forward was hoping to do some stationary shooting by the end of the week.
“Deep down, Ibaka understands his medical timetable couldn't possibly include a return to these conference finals,” Wojnarowski wrote. “But no one has yet talked him out of the belief he'd be back in the lineup if the Thunder advanced to the NBA Finals, a source said.”
Typically, a Grade 2 calf strain knocks a player out for 4-6 weeks. On Feb. 28, Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha sustained one. He sat out 17 games, finally returning on April 8, 39 days later.
“Maybe a few days,” Sefolosha said when asked if he could have rushed it back for a desperate situation. “But not that much before.”
Ibaka sustained the injury on May 15. Four weeks later — or 28 days — would set up an aggressive return date of June 12. The NBA Finals begin on June 5. It’d be in the middle of the series.
And maybe Ibaka aims even earlier. He’s an extremely hard worker, dedicated to his craft and committed to his team. And Ibaka is clearly mulling it, picking Sefolosha’s brain about the recovery process from the injury.
“He asked me how much time it took and when did I feel comfortable coming back,” Sefolosha said. “But I think everybody’s different and with that injury, it’s just a matter of how you feel. So I can’t really speak on how he’s going to feel in a week from now, two weeks from now, three weeks from now.”
No one does. Not even Ibaka. In his first five years in the NBA, this is his first serious injury. So it’s a wait-and-see process.
And despite hope that he’ll be a quick healer, Ibaka doesn’t sound like a realistic option unless the Thunder get by the Spurs.
“It’s too early to even say anything (about returning),” Sefolosha said.
But if the Thunder can extend its season, it’s not out of the question.