OKLAHOMA CITY -- Hyperbole is mighty hard to resist when processing the return of Serge Ibaka.
In a single night, the 6-foot-10 power forward fixed Oklahoma City's offense, transformed its team defense, garnered newfound respect from longtime teammates, and breathed new life into a Western Conference finals that seemed on the verge of a possible sweep. His presence on the court -- cheered raucously throughout -- was the major driver behind the Thunder's 106-97 victory over the Spurs in Game 3, a contest that saw the series' vanquished become the vanquisher.
It may be going too far to say Ibaka's memorable night -- all 15 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and dozens of limps -- swung the momentum to Oklahoma City's side, but his impact prevented the Thunder from staring down a nearly impossible 3-0 deficit. It drew words of appreciation from Kevin Durant and brought a wide smile to Russell Westbrook's face, all while reaffirming his team's identity after a humiliating 35-point defeat in Game 2.
Thanks to Ibaka, a Thunder team that looked too soft, too thin, too undisciplined and too inefficient Wednesday was back to its athletic, suffocating, attack-mode self Sunday.
"[Game 2 was] not us, other than it was us that night," coach Scott Brooks said Sunday, when asked about the Thunder's transformation. "I have a lot of respect for San Antonio but they're not that much [35 points] better than us."
A storybook start to the evening for Ibaka evolved into a night where the ripple effects of his return could be found virtually everywhere on the court. It began when he confidently knocked down his first shot, scoring Oklahoma City's first points.
"I was so emotional," Ibaka said, when asked about that first basket. "I will never stop thanking my teammates for tonight. I will never forget it, it was very special tonight."
Within three minutes, Ibaka had six points on three jumpers plus a block near the rim, and it was immediately clear the Spurs were facing a totally different opponent. By the time he asked out of the game, looking tired, with seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Ibaka led all scorers with eight points and still hadn't missed a shot.
All this just nine days after he was ruled out for the entire playoffs with a calf strain and without the benefit of a full practice to prepare himself. All this as he headed for the locker room during the game to receive treatment, and doubled over to massage his leg before exiting the game in the fourth quarter. All this as he played through pain he refused to discuss afterward, other than to say, "My pain is pain."
"He was incredible," Manu Ginobili said.
Offensively, Ibaka's ability to hit six of his seven shots, including both mid-range and closer-range jumpers, created space in San Antonio's interior defense, allowing Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson the ability to drive without facing the wall of defenders they saw earlier in the series. Jackson thrived after being shifted into a starting role for the first time during the playoffs, scoring 15 points and dishing five assists and getting to the hoop in opportunistic fashion.
The Thunder's spaced attack produced 46 points in the paint (a plus-six advantage) and 31 free throw attempts (a plus-15 advantage). Forcing the Spurs to account for Ibaka helped produce a plus-16 rebounding edge, the first time the Thunder won the boards in the series, and 15 second-chance points.
Perhaps most importantly, Oklahoma City was able to score consistently on a quarter-to-quarter basis, thereby avoiding the one-sided runs San Antonio used to blow open game after game in recent weeks. Durant and Westbrook combined for 51 points on 38 shots, one game after needing 40 shots to get just 30 points.
"Our defense was pretty poor," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Our first half was probably the poorest defense we've played in a very long time ... It was a miracle it was a one-point game with 40 seconds to go in the first half from my perspective."
To no one's great surprise, Ibaka's presence was even more obvious on the other end. San Antonio essentially did whatever it pleased in Games 1 and 2, alternating scoring at the rim and from the three-point line with ease. Tony Parker circled through Oklahoma City's defense whenever he pleased, Tim Duncan enjoyed a never-ending supply of clean looks, and Danny Green feasted on open kickouts.
No more. Although Ibaka was laboring at times and unable to leap to his full capability, he still blocked four shots and altered countless others. He also discouraged drives and free movement, mucking up San Antonio's flowing offense and covering when necessary for his teammates, who looked more locked in on the perimeter.
"He makes you think twice about going in there," Westbrook said.
The Spurs managed just 40 points in the paint after averaging 60 over Games 1 and 2. What's more, San Antonio's 39.6 percent shooting was its lowest mark of the postseason and its worst shooting performance in more than two months, dating back to a March 22 win over Golden State. The Spurs, who finished No. 2 in the league in field goal percentage, shot less than 40 percent just six times during the regular season. They also committed 16 turnovers, their second-highest total of the postseason.
"To hold this team to under 40 percent is a tough challenge, but we did it tonight," Brooks said. "We played great defense. We did it one game. We've got to come back and do the same thing in a couple of nights."
Parker, in particular, was bottled up throughout. He finished with nine points (on 4-for-13 shooting) and four assists against four turnovers. Outside of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Blazers, which he left early due to a hamstring injury, it was his worst showing of the postseason. If not for a sensational night from Ginobili, who hit six three-pointers en route to a team-high 23 points (on 8-for-13 shooting), San Antonio would have been toasted even earlier.
"We didn't play good basketball, that starts with me," Parker said. "I missed shots and had bad turnovers. I just have to play better."
Attributing all of Oklahoma City's success and all of San Antonio's shortcomings solely to Ibaka would be an oversimplification: the one-legged man didn't singlehandedly win this game. Brooks' starting lineup changes paid dividends, the Thunder enjoyed a huge advantage at the stripe, and the Spurs' shooters -- aside from Ginobili -- just didn't have the touch from outside.
Still, Ibaka's fingerprints were visible on so many aspects of the action, and his decision to push to return to the court left an unmistakable imprint, as Oklahoma City looks to even the series at two games apiece Tuesday.
"That's everything you want your teammate to embody," Durant said. "A guy who gives himself up for the team, gives his body 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 ... That's something you want to have besides you every single day."