When he checked out of the game with 3:17 left to play, Serge Ibaka strolled to the Thunder bench to the sounds of a crazed sold out crowd wildly cheering not just his comeback in Game 3 of the West Finals against San Antonio on Sunday night but the spectacular success he had while delivering an inspiring performance for the ages in Oklahoma City’s 106-97 win.
With each step he took, Ibaka kept one finger pointed to the sky, the spiritual power forward showing everyone who he believes made this all possible.
“First of all I just want to thank God,” Ibaka later said. “I’m here tonight because of him.”
When his team’s medical staff prematurely ruled him out for the remainder of this postseason, when his teammates and coaches figured they’d be forced to carry on their championship quest without him, Ibaka never gave up hope.
In his head and his heart, he knew and felt that he would be back.
And there he was Sunday night, right back in his rightful place in the starting lineup, announced second-to-last in pre-game introductions and greeted by the Chesapeake Energy Arena fans with an ear-splitting roar that even drowned out the ovation for league Most Valuable Player, Kevin Durant.
“Words can’t describe it. It was a great moment,” said Thunder forward Caron Butler. “In my career, I’ve been a part of a lot of great moments in basketball history and that was a special one right there.”
You knew it would be a special night when Ibaka swished his first jumper, a patented pick-and-pop feed from Russell Westbrook for the game’s first points 32 seconds in.
“I was emotional when I made that first shot,” Ibaka said. “But you could not really tell because I was on the court. But it felt good. It gave me confidence to keep doing what I can do.”
He made another off an assist from Westbrook. And then another off a dish from Reggie Jackson.
Ibaka scored six of the Thunder’s first 10 points and 15 on the night, effectively pumping life into what had been a listless Thunder offense down in San Antonio.
“We just kind of rode that energy from the crowd from the beginning right on out to the fourth quarter and just kind of took that momentum and finished the game with it,” Butler said.
Then came Ibaka’s defense.
He registered two of his four blocked shots in the first 3minutes, one on Spurs center Tiago Splitter and the other on Tim Duncan.
“His energy and his spirit,” Butler said of the most important thing the Thunder got from Ibaka. “Obviously we have missed that on the court. Everybody was doing something to try to compensate for it. But to have him back out there just being active and blocking shots and stretching the floor out knocking down the pick-and-pop, seeing that courage out there knowing that he’s not showing no pain or anything.”
Butler called it uplifting and motivating.
You could also call it gutsy.
Ibaka began showing a pronounced limp in the third quarter, when the minutes began to pile up and the adrenaline wouldn’t let him not challenge every shot the Spurs put up in the paint. After a block on Spurs guard Danny Green, his fourth of the night, Ibaka was as hobbled as he was all night.
He refused to leave the game.
Just like he did minutes earlier, Ibaka waved off a substitution. He was giving this one all he had.
“He was just saying he’s fine,” Butler said. “He kept signaling to the coaching staff that he was fine. Obviously we were worried about him and everybody’s keeping a tight watch on him. But he said, ‘I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.’ And he just kept gutting through. We needed every bit of that.”
Whenever he did come out, Ibaka rode a stationary bike or walked to the back to do more exercises. He tried to keep moving. Didn’t want that sucker to stiffen.
Ibaka was told it’s possible his calf could get slightly worse but not much worse. So he played.
And after the game, he didn’t want to discuss the pain.
“The most important thing is we got the win,” Ibaka said. “And my focus is about the next game.”
Then he thanked God. He thanked Thunder fans. He thanked his teammates.
“I will never stop thanking them for tonight,” Ibaka said. “I will never forget them. It was very special tonight.”