Oklahoma City Thunder’s Serge Ibaka had a Willis Reed moment.
For those who are too young to remember Willis Reed, he’s the guy who lifted the New York Knicks to a world championship in 1970 by sinking two baskets at the start of Game 7 despite a leg so badly hurt he could barely jog.
Ibaka did more that score two baskets in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. He made his first five shots from the field for 10 points in the first quarter and made his presence felt on the defensive end where he has earned the nickname Serge Protector.
Not bad for a guy who was supposed to miss the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury.
After the Thunder won Game 3 106-97, Popovich made reference to Ibaka’s “out for the remainder of the season” during his post-game comments by making light of Manu Ginobili’s minor foot injury.
“[Manu’s] fine. Or he’s going to out for the rest of the playoffs,” Popovich joked.
When the Thunder made the announcement that Ibaka is done for the season, the Spurs rolled their eyes. They had a feeling he was going to return. And he did.
Ibaka finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a little more than 30 minutes of work.
On offense, Ibaka may the Spurs pay every time he picked and popped to the elbow. San Antonio had been loading up defensively on Russell Westbrook the first two games of the series because Nick Collison wasn’t a threat to shoot. But in Game 3, Westbrook found Ibaka wide open each time they ran their high pick-and-roll offense.
But Ibaka made his biggest impact on defense. He had a team-leading four blocks, but he probably altered 10 shots near the rim. He also allowed the Thunder to stay connected with the Spurs’ 3-point shooters especially Danny Green, who was coming off a Game 2 in which he buried seven 3-pointers.
Green had just eight points and was 3-for-12 from the field in Game 3.
Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who had his way against OKC’s defense in Games 1 and 2 (both Spurs blowouts), struggled to get into a rhythm in Game 3 mainly because Ibaka was patrolling the paint. Whenever Parker turned the corner off pick-and-rolls, Ibaka was right in his face. One time he made Parker lose his balance on a drive and another he rejected Parker’s flip shot to trigger an OKC break.
“Serge has put so much work in throughout the season that missing a couple of days didn’t hurt him,” Westbrook said. ”Tonight, he jumped right back into where he was.”
Scott Brooks should also get some credit. He did a great acting job in the first two games, leaving the impression that Ibaka was lost for the season. He repeated four times to a reporter after Game 1 that Ibaka was not coming back. Each time he said it his nose grew.
”When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want in a teammate,” Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant said about Ibaka. ”I gained so much more respect for Serge for sacrificing himself for the team. Regardless of what happened tonight, that’s something you want beside you.”
Ibaka certainly has the Spurs’ respect — and full attention.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.