Now, this is getting interesting.
On the night that Serge Ibaka returned not only to the court but also to the starting lineup, the Thunder returned to the win column. There will be no Spurs sweep. There will be no breezing to the NBA Finals for San Antonio.
In fact, this might turn into one heck of a Western Conference Finals.
Thunder 106, Spurs 97.
“Serge is a great player,” Thunder coach Scott 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 we obviously missed him the last two games.”
Ibaka injured his calf in the final game of the second-round series against the Clippers. The Thunder ruled him out for the remainder of the playoffs, but then Friday, the team announced that his recovery was going better than expected and that he would be listed as day-to-day.
Sunday, though, he looked full speed ahead.
With the victory, the Thunder tightened up the series, and even though the Spurs still lead 2-1, the Thunder looked nothing like the team that lost the first two game of this series by double digits. It looked instead like the title contender that many pundits have tagged it to be.
On the offensive end, the Thunder shot 45.7 percent and got to the free-throw line 31 times, almost twice as much as the Spurs.
On the defensive end, the Thunder held the Spurs to 39.6 percent shooting and 40 points in the paint while causing 16 turnovers.
Not with everything, of course, but his presence returning from a calf strain at first thought to be a season ender was clearly a game changer.
A series changer, too.
“I think I did pretty well,” Ibaka said after the game on TNT, “and also not only me but my teammates, too. We did a great job to make them take some tough shots.”
With Ibaka back, the Spurs shot 48 percent in the paint in Game 3. In the first two games of the series, they shot 67 percent.
Another revealing stat from the first half: the Spurs’ average field-goal attempt length was 16.4 with Ibaka on the court. When he was on the bench, it was 7.8 feet.
The Ibaka Effect was obvious.
“Serge is always great in the paint,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He blocks shots. He changes shots. He did a fine job.”
The Thunder faithful thought so, too. Ibaka finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks, and when he checked out in the fourth quarter, he was given a long, loud ovation. He gave the sign of the cross, looked up, pointed both index fingers skyward and left up one of those extended index fingers as he walked to the bench.
The ovation only grew.
Ibaka is sure to get lots of love Tuesday night, too. Game 4 will be at 8 at The Peake.
“He was incredible,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “For sure, he’s a great player. He provides them with a lot of things, not only mid-range shots but also defensive. He really helped them.”