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.