By Ben Golliver
May 27, 2014

Serge IbakaSerge Ibaka had 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in Game 3. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Sport)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- After adjusting their way back into the Western Conference finals, the Thunder will stick to their newfound script when Game 4 against the Spurs rolls around Tuesday night.

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks told reporters Monday that power forward Serge Ibaka, who returned to the court in dramatic fashion in Game 3 after missing two games with a calf injury, will be available. Additionally, Brooks suggested that he will stick with his Game 3 starting lineup of Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Kevin Durant, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

Ibaka posted 15 points (on 6-for-7 shooting), seven rebounds and four blocks in a 106-97 Game 3 victory, helping Oklahoma City cut its series deficit against San Antonio to 2-1. The Thunder big man stretched the floor with his mid-range shot on offense, shored up Oklahoma City's interior defense and provided an emotional lift to a team that looked dead in the water after back-to-back blowout losses in Games 1 and 2. Although Ibaka did not participate in practice on Monday, he remains available as the Thunder look to even the series at two games apiece.

"All we did is we watched film," Brooks said. "We had a long film session ... and then we walked over a few things on both ends of the floor, so [Ibaka] didn't participate. But all we did was walk through things. He felt good. He felt good this morning."

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Following Game 3, Ibaka acknowledged that he was playing through pain, even though he was cleared by Oklahoma City's doctors to return to the court. He tempered expectations on Monday, telling reporters that he has been icing his leg and suggesting that he would likely be in a similar spot Tuesday as he was on Sunday.

"Well, I'm sure every day I'm going to feel better every day, but I'm not expecting to feel much better yet tomorrow," he said, adding that he would begin participating in practices if his calf improved after Game 4.

The praise for Ibaka's performance ran thick in the aftermath of Game 3, with Oklahoma City realizing that his return had, at least for the time being, saved their season. Durant was particularly vocal, hailing Ibaka's "sacrifice" as the embodiment of a good teammate.

The 24-year-old Congolese big man argued that he was simply doing his job.

"When we sign here in the NBA, we sign on everything, man," Ibaka said. "At the end of the day, no matter what happened last night after the game or get hurt badly, I signed for this. I signed for this. The military, when they go out there to fight, when they sign, they sign for everything. No matter what happened last night, I signed for this. That's what I get paid for."

Ibaka's return and Brooks' decision to start Jackson instead of Thabo Sefolosha created a starting lineup that played together for just 24 minutes during the entire 2013-14 regular season and 38 minutes during the playoffs. Ibaka's health questions only added a level of unpredictability to that lack of shared experience.

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"It was unknown for all of us, [Ibaka], myself, the team," Brooks said. "But I'm proud of him that he put himself out there and he got rewarded for it, really going out there and doing what he does well. To me that's what I'm proud of.  I'm proud that he stepped up to the plate and he was able to lay everything on the line for his team."

Keyed by a fast start from Ibaka in the first quarter and a nice push by Durant and Westbrook to open the third, Oklahoma City's new-look starting lineup was +7 in its 10 minutes together, shooting 8-for-11 from the field. By comparison, the Thunder's previous starting lineup of Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Nick Collison and Perkins was -14 in 23 minutes during Games 1 and 2. Both Sefolosha and Collison, who struggled to provide offense in the first two games, received DNP-CDs in Game 3, as Jackson scored 15 points (on 6-for-13 shooting) and dished five assists.

"[We were] just trying to get comfortable with each other, knowing that we have three play-makers all playing at the same time," Jackson said, referring to himself, Westbrook and Durant. "We have a pick‑and‑pop guy in Serge and also he can attack the basket. Perk does a great job for us with his limited touches on the block, even though I'm not sure people notice.  ... We try and get better with our spacing each and every moment that we're on the floor together no matter what five it is, and then just play free-flowing."

Asked Sunday night if he would stick with Jackson as a starter, Brooks responded: "What do you think?"

The Spurs seem less focused on lineup changes and health concerns, and more concerned with their mental approach in Game 3. After dominating the paint in the first two games of the series, San Antonio was outscored inside and outrebounded on Sunday. Their offense sputtered, too, with Tony Parker unable to get going and everyone besides Manu Ginobili struggling to hit from outside as the Thunder built a 20-point lead before cruising to the victory.

"It's the mysteries of the human head, the mind," Ginobili said, when asked to explain the series' turnaround.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich joked Sunday that Ginobili might be "out for the rest of the playoffs" with a foot injury, mocking Ibaka's overcautious diagnosis, but the Argentinian guard repeated Monday that his foot is simply sore and that he will be ready to go for Game 4.

On a more serious note, Popovich lit into his team's defensive effort on Sunday, upset with their pick-and-roll defense and ticky-tacky fouls. A day later, his focus turned to the other side of the ball, where he challenged Parker, who scored nine points (on 4-for-13 shooting) and had four assists and four turnovers in Game 3, to come back a different player on Tuesday.

"He's our best player," Popovich said. "He's got to play better."

Parker echoed his coach's sentiment: "He's right. I have to play better and I know it. ... I take a lot of responsibility.  That's my job on this team, to get everything going. That's why I took [the loss] hard last night, because I felt like I didn't play well."

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