OKLAHOMA CITY – Serge Ibaka pointed to the sky, soaking in the cheers from the adoring home crowd moments before coming out of a game that just a few days earlier, he never imagined he could play.
He scored 15 points in a dramatic return from what was thought to be a season-ending left calf strain, helping the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs 106-97 on Sunday night in Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference finals.
Ibaka started after missing the first two games of the series. The Thunder originally said he would miss the rest of the playoffs, but changed course Friday. His presence helped the Thunder dominate and cut the Spurs’ lead in the series to 2-1.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks took Ibaka out with 3:17 remaining and the Thunder ahead by 20.
“When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want in a teammate,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “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.”
Ibaka made 6 of 7 shots and was a threat that gave Durant and Russell Westbrook relief. Westbrook had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and Durant added 25 points and 10 rebounds.
On defense, Ibaka was a strong physical presence who blocked and altered shots and used his still formidable mobility to close out on shooters. He had seven rebounds, four blocks and a seemingly endless amount of energy.
Manu Ginobili scored 23 points and Tim Duncan added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Spurs.
Game 4 is Tuesday night at Oklahoma City.
The Thunder outrebounded the Spurs 52-36 after losing the battle of the boards in the first two games. San Antonio, which shot at least 50 percent in the first two games, shot just 40 percent on Sunday night.
The first two games looked like a layup drill for the Spurs. This time, they were forced to reset numerous times. The passes were not as quick or as easy.
“I was very disappointed that we didn’t come out with more of a foot in the neck sort of attitude,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “They killed us on the boards, they beat us in 50-50 balls and that’s very disappointing to me.”