Sources: There's a strong possibility that OKC's Serge Ibaka could return as soon as Game 3 on Sunday. http://t.co/TfjVUiCNJJ— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 23, 2014
Members of the Thunder—including Ibaka—discussed the possibility with the media on Saturday. The fact that Ibaka was made available to the media was the first hint he'll be ready to go:
Also. Pretty telling OKC is making Ibaka available to the media. They don't generally do that w/ an injured player until he's ready to play.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 24, 2014
Ibaka's comments were the second hint:
Ibaka: "Everything is going differently (than) what the doctor told me last time."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 24, 2014
Serge Ibaka: "When the team doctor told me I was out for the playoffs, I didn't believe him, because I believe in God."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 24, 2014
Ibaka said if he plays it'll be painful. Asked if he's concerned about further injury he said, "I'm a tough guy."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 24, 2014
Here's the entire transcript of Serge Ibaka's meeting with the media today: http://t.co/scCjIwQww8— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 24, 2014
It certainly doesn't sound like Ibaka's going to let a little pain hold him back.
The power forward hurt his calf in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers. He departed the game after playing 26 minutes.
When pressed to say whether he'd suit up on Sunday, Ibaka indicated that the decision would depend on what the doctors say, telling reporters: "Well, right now I'm waiting for the team doctor to confirm, and also it's depending on whether I will go tomorrow, day by day, and see."
When the question was put in slightly different terms, Ibaka didn't budge: "I just told you it's day by day. I cannot say how I feel. I'm waiting what the doctor going to tell me and how my body going to feel. So day by day, let's see how I'm going to wake up tomorrow."
Ibaka's teammates were hopeful but similarly cautious about making any promises:
Sefolosha on Ibaka: "Day after day he's feeling a little better. Hopefully he'll be able to come back tomorrow."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 24, 2014
Durant on Ibaka: "I don't know what his status is. I've been hearing some stuff but we've been preparing like he's not available."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 24, 2014
The San Antonio Spurs seem to be the most certain faction in all this. They never doubted Ibaka would make a "surprise" return:
Gregg Popovich’s reaction to Serge Ibaka potentially returning for Game 3: ‘Shocked. I’m so surprised.’ http://t.co/tPNVLjK7kC— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) May 23, 2014
Me: "Even though OKC hasn't said Ibaka will play or not, you're expecting it, right?" Tony Parker: "Come on, Dan..."— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 24, 2014
More Parker: "People were making fun of us like we were paranoid, but we look good now. I just knew he was going to play."— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 24, 2014
More Parker: "I'm happy he's playing. It's the playoffs. You want to play against the best teams. That's why you play basketball."— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 24, 2014
Patty lets his Aussie out: "If (Ibaka) plays it's great. We want to play against...a full-strength side. We're looking forward to it."— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 24, 2014
This would of course be much ado about nothing if Ibaka is ultimately unable to go. But it's hard to imagine him sitting unless doctors mandate it. Daily Thunder's Royce Young outlines the probability of a return, noting that Ibaka has yet to satisfy a checklist of prerequisites:
Basically, it comes down to this: If the Thunder's physicians will give him clearance, he's playing, no matter how much pain he's in. But again: He hasn’t practiced yet. He hasn’t even run yet. The game is tomorrow, so Ibaka has a lot of ground to make up to be available for Game 3. Sam Presti said on Friday that Ibaka would need to go through contact drills and some game-like simulations to be able to play, something that didn't happen today. However, Scott Brooks said the team didn't actually have a very intensive practice on Saturday, doing mostly shooting and game preparation things.
Assuming doctors give the go-ahead, you have to imagine Ibaka will have a busy Sunday ahead of him—all culminating in Game 3 tipping off in Oklahoma City.
For now, the talking heads will be busy sorting out how much of a difference Ibaka would make. According to the man himself, his absence isn't the reason OKC dropped those first two games:
Serge Ibaka: "I've been hearing a lot of people saying my team lost two games because I was out. It's not true...— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 24, 2014
"San Antonio the first two games, they played better basketball."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 24, 2014
That's a pretty sound assessment given the margins of victory. Ibaka might have made Games 1 and 2 closer, but it's hard to imagine him single-handedly reversing the Thunder's fortunes.
That said, he could change this series going forward. The Thunder desperately need Ibaka's contributions on the defensive end, where he's one of the league's very best rim-protectors. They could also use his mid-range jumper to help space the floor on offense.
Most importantly, though, Ibaka's return would almost certainly be a mentally and psychologically uplifting experience for the team. More than any difference he'll make from an X's-and-O's perspective, his most indelible impact may be lighting an emotional spark.