Serge Ibaka runs faster than most humans. He’s built stronger, moves quicker and jumps higher.
So it’s not much of a surprise that, as we learned through a Thunder press release on Friday morning, Ibaka is also a quicker healer than most.
The Thunder’s All-Star forward, previously thought to be out for the season with a calf injury – “Serge is not coming back...He’s not walking through those doors,” a defiant coach Scott Brooks repeated in San Antonio – has been upgraded to “day-to-day.” General manager Sam Presti wouldn’t even rule out Ibaka making his return as early as Sunday’s pivotal Game 3 in Oklahoma City.
“The information that we've been working with, he's exceeded that,” Presti said. “We're excited about that. We're a little surprised by it, but you know, he does a lot of things at a level that are not normal.”
Despite some skepticism from the calculated and cautious Spurs – “I know Sammy,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “We knew he’d be back.” – this came as a surprise to most. Reports had surfaced earlier in the week that Ibaka was aiming for a postseason return, but it was not expected to be possible until at least the NBA Finals.
Upon return from San Antonio, though, the Thunder found a determined and improving Ibaka back in OKC. The swelling in his calf, which Presti said was “excessive” on the night of the injury, had subsided to a “substantial and unexpected” degree. He was already off the medical scooter, walking and ready for some light court activity.
“(The decrease in swelling allowed) for our clinicians and our medical staff to get a better understanding of the injury and the function that it was allowing him to perform,” Presti said.
So the Thunder put him through some medical tests and an on-court workout, which went smoothly enough, in their mind, to announce the upgraded status.
“He’s not going through practice,” Presti stressed. “He's not going through contact. He's doing some light drills. He's doing some light shooting. He's not having setbacks at this stage.”
But why now? Why would the Thunder release this updated information in time for the Spurs to react, adjust and prepare for his potential return? Was it in hopes of providing an emotional boost for a young, struggling team that needed it?
“Obviously it would be convenient for us to not provide the information,” Presti said. “And if he were ever healthy enough to play in a game, to release that an hour before the game. But in this case, we don't think that that was the way to handle it because previously we had deemed him out, and we can't deem him out, so therefore we are making this announcement.”
So now it becomes about potential setbacks. If Ibaka doesn’t experience any, and continues to improve at this rapid pace, the Thunder might have its defensive cornerstone back as early as Sunday.
Down 2-0, the Thunder is struggling and desperate. In the first two games, OKC fell by a combined 52 points to an aging Spurs team that looked more like an unstoppable juggernaut. Brooks seemed out of answers, tinkering with his rotations but finding no solutions.
Suddenly, though, he might have found one in a big and surprising way.
“I don't think any of us thought we'd be standing here talking about this,” Presti said of Ibaka. “(But) we're grateful that we are.”