Serge Ibaka was reportedly out for the season following a calf injury during the Western Conference semi-final series versus the L.A. Clippers.
Gregg Popovich was skeptical as to how true that was and refused to rule out the return of the Oklahoma City Thunder shot blocker. Turns out Pop was a step ahead of the game, as usual.
Ibaka suited up for Game 3 of the Conference Finals and it was exactly what the Thunder needed for the in the must-win game
More than just providing an emotional boost, Ibaka actually added some quantitative production in his 30 minutes of play.
Defensively, he was a monster as he finished with four of the team's 10 blocks as well as altering a lot more. That sort of interior defense allowed the perimeter players such as Russell Westbrook to be more aggressive in the coverage of the shooters because they had the comfort of knowing they would have plenty of help if they were beaten of the dribble.
Furthermore, the OKC held San Antonio to just 40 points in the paint, compared to a whopping 66 in Game one and 54 in Game two. Instead, the Spurs primarily became a jump shooting team and consequently shot under 40 percent overall.
No doubt Ibaka’s presence in the middle had a huge impact and his performance garnered praise from Popovich, who said: “Serge was great in the paint. He blocked and changed shots. I think he did a fine job.”
On the offensive end, he was just as impressive, hitting his first five shots of the game on his way to six-of-seven shooting and 15 points on the night. That was six points more than what the trio of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha had managed in over 90 combined minutes during the first two games of the series and Coach Scott Brooks took notice.
“Serge [Ibaka] is a great player and he has 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 in the last two games. [Tonight] He came in and gave us big lift, not only on the defensive end but also on offense.”
When evaluating his own performance and the game, Ibaka was impressed by the team overall.
“I think I did pretty well, my teammates too,” he said. “We did a great job making them take tough shots. I just tried to give my teammates energy on defense and offense by trying to make my presence felt in the paint and controlling the rebounds."
It is still unknown how healthy Ibaka is or will be going forward in this series but if you can guarantee he will fight through the pain and that is why Kevin Durant has such a high opinion of him.
"When you talk about a teammate, that's everything you want in a teammate,'' said the Thunder forward. "I gained so much more respect for Serge for sacrificing himself for the team. Regardless of what happened tonight, that's something you want beside you.''
Nonetheless, Oklahoma City still have a long way to go in order to overcome the deficit against such a talented San Antonio Spurs roster.
Then again, the fact that they escaped a similar position two years ago -trailed 2-0 against the Spurs in 2012 but came roaring back with four straight wins to advance to the NBA Finals- should give them some sort of encouragement.
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