OKLAHOMA CITY — No matter how many platforms flash rapid-fire highlights at us in our fast-food lives, no matter that the NBA MVP plays on the same team, no matter that the San Antonio Spurs still have a pretty good chance at winning it all, the meaning of playing in pain resonates with everyone.
The core premise of basketball competition is man versus man. So it’s far more unique when we get a peek into the conflict that offers the deeper challenge: man versus self.
Sunday night was a glimpse into that simpler world, and there we learned that Serge Ibaka is a warrior, true to his background. A survivor of war-torn Africa, with his mother dying young and his father imprisoned, Ibaka came from a faraway land of basketball courts with divots in them and the kids on those courts making do with plastic sneakers.
After initially being ruled out for the remainder of the postseason because of a torn left calf muscle suffered 10 days ago, Ibaka on Sunday participated, performed and inspired.
Because it was Ibaka, having left the Republic of Congo only seven years ago, it’s not difficult to envision how someone without the modern advancements of repeated MRI exams or lacking any diagnosis on something called the “plantaris” in the leg might simply want to compete and help his team or community if he felt he could deal with the pain enough to do so.
That’s what Ibaka did to lift the Oklahoma City Thunder to their first Western Conference Finals victory in three tries against the Spurs, 106-97.
The NBA MVP was deeply moved, just like every other observer.
“That’s everything you want your teammate to embody,” Kevin Durant said. “A guy who gives himself up for the team, gives his body up for the team. No matter how this game would have gone tonight, I gained so much more respect for Serge for laying it all on the line for us, putting his body out there and sacrificing his health for the betterment of the team.”
None of us is looking to go backwards to a world with less comfort and lost progress, certainly not Ibaka. He went without electricity or running water for four years after fleeing his home during the Second Congo War that killed more than five million people. Perhaps Ibaka’s mother doesn’t die when he’s 8 with different medical care there and then.
Yet, maybe because we are where we are in society we appreciate stories of fundamental perseverance even more. Ibaka putting on a padded calf sleeve and then playing a basketball game is hardly changing the world, but in the scope of things that are not life and death but important to us, moments from our sports escapism remind us of what we all are capable.
So Ibaka, who has rarely sat out during his NBA career but did miss one game this season because of flu-like symptoms, gave us someone to look up to with his effort Sunday night. He might see it differently considering how often he points to the heavens and even after he’d long ago come off the floor, in the game’s final timeout crossed himself one more time alone on the bench. But we saw a man who learned the sense of family as one of 18 children taking enough pride in his team and craft to play well, limp, limp worse, come back to play—and win.
After the game Ibaka thanked God and then said: “I want to thank all the Thunder fans, I know they have been praying for me when I was hurt. I just want to thank them, and I want to thank my teammates. They gave me the confidence tonight to do what I came to do tonight.”
The situation was tenuous enough that when Ibaka did his pregame stretching with a team trainer, they worked on the right leg…and didn’t do anything to the left. But the Thunder’s very first offensive set of the game was a pick-and-pop for Ibaka to take the pass from Russell Westbrook, nail the jumper and suggest everything could be OK again.
Ibaka played inordinately well. He scored 15 points, more than he scored in all but one of the 13 other playoff games, and he blocked four shots, more than his regular-season average of 2.7. He protected the left leg when he could, but when he was chasing Spurs point guard Tony Parker from behind and had to use that leg to take off and block Parker’s shot, he did and just paid the price for it.
“My pain is pain, and I don't want to be here to talk about the pain,” Ibaka said. “Most importantly, we got that win tonight, and the focus is about next game.”
Ibaka’s ability to space the floor for Durant and Westbrook and anchor a team that is built even more on its defense than its star scoring gives the Thunder hope again in this series. And with that hope comes the possibility that they can still win the NBA title that has heretofore eluded this group.
The nature of this injury, with the average number of NBA games missed estimated at 16 as a result, and the Thunder’s unwavering belief that the still-improving Ibaka, 24, is a franchise cornerstone for the future, led the club initially to rule him out for the rest of the playoffs. The Thunder reversed that course only Friday, in light of Ibaka's own unwavering belief about playing again and after the swelling had gone down substantially.
It’s a funny thing with technology and long-term planning. Flash back a year ago, when Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee and ended the Thunder’s title chances by missing the rest of the postseason. The truth is that the Thunder had the best record in the Western Conference last season—and Westbrook finished that game well enough despite getting hurt midway through the second quarter, lifting the Thunder to a 105-102 Game 2 first-round victory over the Houston Rockets.
Without Westbrook, the Thunder lost Games 2-5 all in a row and were eliminated from the next round by the Memphis Grizzlies. In a simpler world, left to his own drive and less precise medical imaging, yes, Westbrook could’ve kept playing.
The record shows that he had played every one of his 439 possible games until that injury. And anyone who has watched Westbrook for any stretch of time knows the fire that he brings to competition.
Last round, he soared but crashed to the Staples Center floor so hard that it was literally the sound of a bag of bones slamming into wood. Westbrook took some time to get up—but it just fanned that flame more. He absolutely took over the game for the next five minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers, because he’s one of these guys who gets more amped when he tastes his own blood.
Westbrook was red-lighted last season, however, and where the doctors could’ve given him more of a chance to return late in postseason by removing rather the repairing the cartilage, they were determined to be conservative and protect Westbrook for the future.
No one can say it was the wrong decision given the available medical info, but it’s not impossible to suggest that Westbrook could’ve done some amazing, inspirational things on a bum leg and maybe even won the Thunder a championship.
To a lesser extent, Ibaka is getting that chance now.
And the possibility of such pleasure coming from the pain, even beyond the accomplishment of this night, will keep us coming back to see what else is in store.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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