Against most logic, despite working off two indolent, lead-footed performances in Games 1 and 2, the Thunder found life Sunday night, grinding their way to a 106-97 victory, staving off the dreaded, insurmountable 3-0 deficit that no NBA team has ever successfully erased.
They made these Western Conference Finals a series.
Momentum finally on their side, courtesy of an emotionally thrilling Game 3, the Thunder must continue surfing this wave and ensure that doesn't change.
The Ibaka Paradox
Emotional boons don't get more powerful or inspirational than the one Serge Ibaka triggered Sunday night.
Sidelined by a left calf injury for the series' first two games, Ibaka was thought to be done—lost for the rest of the postseason. In his own personal Willis Reed moment, Ibaka defied the odds, scorned his diagnosis and reduced a season-ending injury to nothing more than a 10-day furlough.
We know Ibaka is a religious ironman and already the product of thwarting obstacles and unwavering faith, but how did he do this?
Mock the involvement of higher powers (and frozen water) if you're into that sort of cynicism. Whatever it was that helped Ibaka plow through pain and bleak timetables worked.
In just under 30 minutes of action, Ibaka went for 15 points—for the first time since May 9—seven rebounds, one steal and four blocks. Since 2002, only four total players have gone for at least 15 points, seven rebounds, one steal and four blocks in a playoff game while logging no more than 30 minutes—Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard, Amar'e Stoudemire and, now, Ibaka.
The impact he had was evident from the start. He scored the Thunder's first points, setting the tone for what was to come. Throughout the game, he was everywhere, doing everything.
Ibaka hit shots, he contested shots, he blocked shots. There was nothing he wasn't doing. The Spurs were never able to get a real handle on this game. Tony Parker was out of sorts. Tim Duncan couldn't find his rhythm. San Antonio's offense was uncharacteristically disjointed and inefficient, and clearly ruffled by its inability to reach the rim and exploit Oklahoma City's interior defense at will.
After shooting 53.8 percent from the floor overall in Games 1 and 2, the Spurs converted just 39.6 percent of their field goals in Game 3. Credit Ibaka with disrupting their flow down low, serving as the general nuisance Oklahoma City didn't have, yet desperately needed.
Nearly one-half of the Spurs' shot attempts through the first two contests came within the restricted area, where they were shooting 68.7 percent. Just under 41 percent of their attempts came from there in Game 3, and they buried only 45.9 percent of them.
Aside from his statistical impact, there was Ibaka's energy. It was there from the start and never left. His spirit, his sheer will, was everything to the Thunder. It was everything they needed. It was everything they didn't have.
It was just everything.
With him playing, the Thunder were offered a fresh start, a different outlook on this series and, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding observed, renewed hope:
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.
Energy cannot be quantified. Sometimes, its importance is unclear, glossed over, maybe even deemed irrelevant to the outcome.
On this night, it was overt and impossible to ignore. Ibaka, while wagging his tongue and personifying heart, laid the groundwork. The rest of Oklahoma City followed his lead.
“My pain is pain, and I don't want to be here to talk about the pain,” Ibaka said afterward, per Ding. “Most importantly, we got that win tonight, and the focus is about next game.”
Thanks to his impassioned effort, the focus is on completing a series comeback rather than the Thunder's inevitable exit.
Adjustments haven't been the Thunder's strong suit for most of these playoffs.
OK, all of these playoffs.
Coach Scott Brooks has been berated for his uninventive play-calling and poor in-game adaptations. Kevin Durant's periodic offensive stoicism is disturbing. Russell Westbrook's decision making often has a "What the hell are you doing, Russ?" feel to it.
Parts of Game 3 saw much of the same. Durant didn't take over early on, when the Thunder should have pulled away after San Antonio's poor start. Westbrook's first-half shot selection was a mixture of typical and disgusting. The team as a whole didn't set the world on fire offensively.
There were ugly sets, and there was bad three-point shooting. There were too many turnovers (18), and there was a lack of ball movement.
Yet the Thunder still won.
Reggie Jackson, along with Ibaka, was inserted into the starting lineup, opening up the Thunder's offensive options. The Spurs were forced to combat that additional athleticism and simply couldn't. If it's one thing they lack, it's athleticism.
Size advantages didn't matter. Running small didn't help. The Thunder adjusted to everything they did.
Options have always existed for the Thunder. Sans Ibaka, they were limited in what they could do, but they still had options. They just failed to explore them, to exploit them.
That wasn't the case Sunday night. Wrote Daily Thunder's Royce Young on the heels of Game 3:
What having Ibaka did was open the game for the Thunder. Defensively, they could attack the Spurs’ perimeter shooters and not fear every pick-and-roll that let Parker or Ginobili into the paint. The presence of Ibaka alone was enough to discourage Parker from trying the rim. And offensively, having him as a legit threat gave the Thunder that flow back. The screen-and-roll game was deadly, because the Spurs were worried about Ibaka’s knockdown ability from the elbows. So Durant and Westbrook had more freedom, as well as an option to kick to.
For the Thunder, it was all about those options and adjustments.
Killer instinct was evident down the stretch. Brooks showed a willingness to experiment, benching Thabo Sefolosha and advanced-analytics dynamo Nick Collison, opting to play Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams extensively instead.
The end result wasn't always pretty. Defensively, the Thunder were almost perfect. But it took Westbrook's second-half explosion (14 points, 5-of-9 shooting) to put the game out of reach.
In a way, that's what is most encouraging. Durant shot 3-of-12 in the second half yet still found ways to contribute. Westbrook was his usual enigmatic self—destructive one minute, gloriously productive the next—and the Thunder found continuity.
Kevin Durant dropped his 20th career playoff game with 25+ Pts/10+ Reb. That puts him into some EXCLUSIVE company. pic.twitter.com/save03r7SG— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 26, 2014
Far from flawless, the Thunder still took down the Western Conference's best team. Nothing is more satisfying, or worth building upon, than that.
Keep the Crazy Train Rolling
Oklahoma City cannot stop at Game 3.
Duplicating this kind of kinetic, outright peppy and defiant display will be difficult, but it is possible.
While Ibaka's return is done and over with, the significance of what he's doing, of what he's playing through, continues to linger. That won't go away.
Confounding defensive sets don't have to go anywhere. The Thunder won't hold the Spurs to 39.6-percent shooting every night—they shot just 31.7 percent on uncontested looks, per NBA.com—but they have the personnel to make life hard.
Which team will advance to the NBA Finals?
Brooks doesn't have to stop tinkering with the lineup. He can roll with what's working. He can probe the depth of his roster and test different combinations when the game calls for it.
That crowd isn't going anywhere, either. Not for Game 4. It was alive with affection in Game 3, furiously proud and overwhelmingly loud. That won't change.
This one gritty performance and unrelenting effort doesn't have to be the extent of Oklahoma City's Western Conference Finals story. The Spurs are a great team, but the Thunder have every reason to believe they can continue making this a series.
Never mind the 2-0 series deficit they overcame in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. That was then. This is now.
And now, the Thunder are whole again.
The raw emotion, the energy, the intensity — the Thunder were whole again. They were themselves. They had their monster in the middle back and they fed off him the entire game. The first play the Thunder ran was a high pick-and-pop to Ibaka, and he smoothly dropped it. When he erased a Tony Parker layup attempt a few minutes later, it was obvious things were different now.
Things are different. The Thunder have life. They just have to preserve it.
A 3-1 deficit is insuperable against these Spurs. Plans for redemption must carry over to Game 4, when the Thunder have the opportunity to knot this series up, when they have the chance to make this even more of a fight.
"Yeah, it was a very special game," Ibaka told Amick. "A very special game."
This side of Game 3, it's about making this a special series, one in which the Thunder use their newly harnessed momentum to continue to beat the odds, turning this once-rapidly vanishing opportunity into lasting success.