Serge Ibaka's Return Would Breathe Life into Listless Oklahoma City Thunder

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Serge Ibaka's Return Would Breathe Life into Listless Oklahoma City Thunder
USA TODAY Sports

Finally, something may be going right for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Serge Ibaka could return to the Thunder lineup as early as Game 3 on Sunday:

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka has a strong possibility of playing in Sunday's Game 3 of the Western Conference finals after the team upgraded him to day-to-day, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Ibaka went through a battery of tests on Thursday and his calf responded well. He injured the calf during Game 6 of the Thunder's second-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, after which team officials declared him out for the remainder of the postseason.

Despite the prognosis of a four-to-eight-week time frame for the injury to heal, Ibaka had pushed to return, believing he could play through the pain.

 

General manager Sam Presti issued a press release on OKC's official site that read:

The abundance of blood and therefore swelling in Serge’s calf has reduced substantially and unexpectedly, allowing a level of movement and stability not thought possible after the initial diagnosis. Based on both imaging and physical exam, the considerable swelling in the calf indicated the likelihood of a certain degree of injury, and that established the original time frame for recovery.

At present, Serge has yet to complete a full basketball workout, but is walking and doing light basketball drills. With this new information, and in an effort to keep his status current, we are now listing him as day-to-day with the understanding that there is a possibility for him to play in this series.

 

When Ibaka first injured his calf, it appeared he was out for the rest of the postseason. Now, he'll be joining the list of players to have magically made a speedy recovery during the playoffs:

While Ibaka clearly falls third in the Thunder hierarchy, you can't overstate how much his return would mean for Oklahoma City:

The Thunder have been bullied in almost every sense of the word so far by the San Antonio Spurs. They lost Game 1 by 17 points and then Game 2 by 35.

San Antonio has scored a combined 120 points in the paint in the Western Conference Finals. Tim Duncan went for 27 points in Game 1 and recorded a double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) in Game 2. Tony Parker has also been allowed to penetrate at will, combining for 36 points so far in the series.

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The problem is pretty simple.

NBA.com's Jeff Kaplan explained it very succinctly.

Without Ibaka, the Thunder don't have a rim protector who can take Duncan and Parker head on. Kendrick Perkins, is well, Kendrick Perkins, and Steven Adams is nowhere near ready to elevate to such a prominent role on the team.

On the offensive end, OKC hasn't found a replacement who can knock down mid-range jumpers in the way that the 6'10" forward can.

Kaplan then put Ibaka's absence into context with some of the more recent NBA title-winners:

Through two games, Ibaka’s essential two-way contributions are irreplaceable. His loss to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would now seem equivalent to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade trying to get by last year without Chris Bosh, or Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce playing without Kevin Garnett during their contending days in Boston. Or even Parker and Manu Ginobili running the gauntlet without Duncan, particularly during their stretch of three titles in five years a decade ago.

 

All of it has made some wonder whether Durant was the true most valuable player:

What has become abundantly clear is that the Thunder are still a very good team without Ibaka. Durant is one of the best basketball players in the world, and Westbrook is capable of doing things that defy logic.

However, the title hopes go on hold as long as one of OKC's Big Three is out of action.

Ibaka's return isn't a guarantee of automatic success. With the Thunder's performance so far, you wonder if the issues are bigger than one player being out (i.e., head coach Scott Brooks' game management, Durant and Westbrook coexisting, etc.)

Not to mention that Oklahoma City is already two games down to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Winning four out of the next five games will be difficult for OKC even if the team is at full strength.

The Thunder couldn't have hoped for a better lifeline, though, to get back into the series.

There is the more tangible affect of having Ibaka prowl the paint, but the less quantifiable emotional lift would provide just as big of a boost, if not a bigger one.

People forget that Willis Reed scored four points in that famous Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but the image of him striding onto the court has become one of the NBA's most iconic.

Ibaka wouldn't have to be back at his best in Game 3. His mere presence may be enough to turn the tide in the Thunder's favor.

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