After two embarrassing losses to open the series, Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was desperately searching for any kind of lineup adjustment to level the playing field.
Serge Ibaka gave him one.
Making a surprise return from a calf injury, Ibaka tallied 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 30 minutes Sunday night, helping the Thunder to a 106-97 win over the San Antonio Spurs.
After Ibaka's quick start, Kevin Durant (25 points, 10 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals) provided the knockout punches with a dominant second half to cut the Spurs' series lead to 2-1.
San Antonio kept things close for a while thanks to Manu Ginobili's 23 points, but Gregg Popovich's squad shot 39.6 percent from the field, converted just 26 field goals inside the three-point line and failed to make its presence felt inside the paint, as ESPN's J.A. Adande noted:
Spurs points in paint: Game 1, 66. Game 2, 54. Game 3, 38.— J.A. Adande (@jadande) May 26, 2014
Prior to the game, Brooks talked to reporters about Ibaka's return, via Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:
We’re excited about it. The last couple of days he’s progressed very well, he’s improved. The welling went down the last few days and he’s got a better handle on it. … He’s increased his activity and then yesterday he did a lot of good things in basketball, game-like situations.
It took mere seconds for the two-way big man to live up to those words. Ibaka hit all four of his shots in the first quarter, controlled the glass, blocked two shots and altered a slew of others.
ESPN Stats & Info captured his immense impact from a perspective beyond the box score:
Ibaka effect: Spurs average FG attempt with Serge Ibaka on court: 16.4 feet; off court: 7.8 feet— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 26, 2014
The Spurs first-half shot chart was another indication of Ibaka's presence, per ThunderObsessed.com:
Spurs shot chart is full of Ibaka influence. Spurs just 8-of-21 at the rim tonight (20/48, 41.7%) pic.twitter.com/r6ST60IQJO— Thunder Obsessed (@ThunderObsessed) May 26, 2014
Of course, Ibaka wasn't the only change in the starting lineup. Dynamic combo guard Reggie Jackson also got the nod from Brooks, adding a significant amount of scoring punch.
“He gives us another guy that can attack,” Brooks said, via Golliver. “He gives us another guy that can play pick-and-roll offensively. He gives us another guy that can get opportunities on the weak side to attack their defense."
Jackson finished with nine points and four assists in the first half, providing the intended boost.
Following the game, Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding applauded the underrated move:
Starting Ibaka was obvious, but Brooks starting Reggie Jackson (15p, 5a, 4r, team-high 37 minutes) was a key adjustment in OKC W.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) May 26, 2014
Still, the Spurs were able to keep things close. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard all struggled from the field, but Ginobili hit five first-half threes, including a pair in the final minute during an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better moment with Westbrook. Golliver noted the scintillating finish to the half:
Manu Ginobili and Russell Westbrook just combined to shoot 4-for-4 on three-pointers in 35 seconds— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 26, 2014
The Argentinian led all scorers with 20 at the half, keeping the cold-shooting Spurs within four at the break.
Durant and Westbrook scored OKC's first eight points of the third quarter (making it 21 straight for the duo overall), though, helping the Thunder extend the lead to double digits. Ibaka followed up the run with a pair of big blocks but came up noticeably hobbled.
As CBS Sports' Royce Young noted, it wasn't enough to force the big man from the game:
Serge Ibaka is limping pretty severely. Waiving off teammates saying he's OK.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 26, 2014
He eventually left for the locker room with 1:52 left in the third, but would return in the fourth quarter.
ESPN's Jason Romano highlighted that the Thunder enjoyed a massive edge at the free-throw line to take a seven-point advantage into the final period:
Thunder had 22 free throw attempts in the 3rd quarter. Spurs had zero free throw attempts in the 3rd quarter.— Jason Romano (@JasonRomano) May 26, 2014
The Thunder started the fourth with a 7-0 run, cruising to a 17-point lead before Pop finally waved the white flag and removed his starters with 6:07 to go.
Who wins Game 4?
How this series plays out from here clearly hinges on Ibaka, and it will be interesting to see how his calf responds with just one day off before Tuesday night's Game 4.
With a one-game lead and home-court advantage, the Spurs still have the upper hand, but thanks to a little help from modern medicine and Ibaka's toughness, Brooks has clearly found his starting lineup to turn this series 180 degrees.