After being blown out of the arena in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, failure began to feel all too real for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They were one loss away from finding themselves in an 0-3 series deficit from which no team in NBA postseason history has ever recovered.
Thoughts of the 2012 WCF, when the Thunder racked four straight against the Spurs after being down 0-2 in the series, still dwindled in the back of the minds of Thunder fans, but this time it felt different. The Thunder looked helpless defensively as they watched the Spurs get everything they wanted offensively, and they simply couldn't keep up with the Spurs' run-and-gun, highly efficient pace.
The Spurs have a knack for exploiting the soft spots in opposing teams' weaknesses. The obvious weakness for the Thunder in the first two games of this series was the absence of Serge Ibaka.
He was a major reason the Thunder were able to sweep the Spurs in the regular season. He contributed offensively with his patented elbow shots and drives to the rim, but more importantly he contributed on defense by clogging the lanes in the paint with his shot-blocking ability.
So prior to Game 3 in Oklahoma City Sunday night, Thunder Nation had a glimmer of hope when news broke that Serge Ibaka would be returning to the lineup. However, it felt unlikely the Thunder would be able to bounce back from a 35-point deficit in Game 2 and come out victorious in a much-needed Game 3, even with Ibaka on the floor.
But sometimes a single player can make that much of a difference.
Ibaka proved to do just that in the Thunder's 106-97 victory in Game 3—and he did it virtually on one leg.
Game 3 couldn't have been scripted any better for the Thunder, as Ibaka hit the first shot of the game. After that, the Thunder didn't really look back. Ibaka finished the game with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, along with seven rebounds and four blocks.
After the game, Ibaka spoke to the media about his emotional return, per Royce Young of Daily Thunder. “I was so emotional, but you couldn’t really tell because I was on the court,” Ibaka said. “I will never stop thanking [my teammates] for tonight. I will never forget it.”
Kevin Durant also talked about the return of Ibaka and his gratefulness to have him as a teammate, per Young:
“When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want your teammate to embody, a guy that gives himself up for the team,” Durant said. “No matter how this game would have went tonight, I gained so much 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. I’m glad we won the basketball game, but no matter what would have happened tonight, that’s something you want to have beside you every single day.”
The obvious impacts of Ibaka's return for the Thunder were his contributions on both ends of the floor.
His dual-threat ability led to multiple open jumpers from the elbow which he was able to knock down, and it also allowed other Thunder players to space the floor and get open looks of their own. Defensively, Ibaka gave the Thunder an immeasurable boost as he blocked or altered multiple shots throughout the night. His presence alone even forced Spurs ball-handlers to think twice about penetrating the paint.
One not-so-obvious impact of Ibaka's return was the energy boost he provided his teammates. Ibaka obviously wasn't the only factor in the Thunder's 44-point swing from Game 2 to Game 3. Other players were more involved and contributing, so Russell Westbrook and Durant didn't have to carry so much of the load.
The non-Westbrook/Durant starters put up 34 points on 13-of-21 shooting, and the bench even chipped in with 21 points.
Overall, the Thunder were better with Ibaka back in the lineup, and they'll undoubtedly have to play this way consistently if they are to complete the series comeback.
With a Game 4 victory Tuesday night, the Thunder will begin to think about 2012 again. It would be a complete change in momentum in the series. The Thunder still have a long way to go, but a comeback seems like a much better possibility with a healthy Serge Ibaka on the floor.
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