The Oklahoma City Thunder received a huge boost from a returning Serge Ibaka in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs and will try to even the series Tuesday night in Game 4 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
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The Thunder earned their first win of the set with Sunday's 106-97 victory and Ibaka played a big role.
After suffering a left calf strain against the Los Angeles Clippers in the previous round, Ibaka was ruled out for the remainder of the postseason. He missed the first two games of the conference finals in San Antonio, but word changed on Friday that the big man had improved tremendously and was considered day-to-day.
Ibaka started Game 3 and dominated early, going 4-for-4 from the floor in first quarter. He finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in just under 30 grueling, limping minutes.
"I was so emotional, but you couldn't really tell because I was on the court," Ibaka said. "I just want to thank my teammates, thank Russell, he tried to get me going early in the game. Kevin (Durant), (Kendrick) Perkins, Reggie (Jackson). I will never stop thanking them for tonight. I will never forget that. It was very special tonight."
Without Ibaka, the Thunder allowed the Spurs to shoot at least 50 percent in the first two tilts and San Antonio won them by a combined 52 points. The Spurs shot just 39.6 percent (36-of-91) from the floor in Game 3.
Westbrook finished 8-of-19 from the field after missing seven of his first eight shots, netting 26 points to go with eight rebounds and seven assists. Durant added 25 points and 10 boards for the Thunder, who held a commanding 52-36 advantage on the glass.
Reggie Jackson, who was inserted into the starting lineup for Thabo Sefolosha, also had 15 in the win.
Manu Ginobili nailed six 3-pointers and scored 23 points for San Antonio, which has dropped eight straight to the Thunder in OKC, including the postseason.
Tim Duncan added 16 and Kawhi Leonard chipped in 10 in the loss.
"I was very disappointed that we didn't come out with more of a foot in the neck sort of an attitude," admitted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "They killed us on the board, they beat us on 50/50 balls, and that's very disappointing to me. That's not the way you approach a game."
Ibaka carried OKC in the first quarter, but San Antonio led by one after the first 12 minutes. Westbrook nailed a pair of pull-up triples in the final 30 seconds of the half, including one at the buzzer to give the Thunder a 57-53 cushion heading into the break.
Two Perkins free throws at the 8:36 mark of the third capped a 10-2 burst and gave the Thunder a 67-57 cushion. His bonus shots provided OKC its first points not supplied by either Durant or Westbrook since a Jackson floater with 4:01 to play in the second.
Ginobili nailed a left wing trey to pull San Antonio within 75-71 with 2:46 to go in the period, but the Thunder extended the margin to 83-76 at the conclusion of the third and then put the game away early in the fourth.
Oklahoma City's lead grew to as many as 20 and the Spurs couldn't get it into single digits.
"I think the biggest thing that changed was the intensity on the defensive end," said Durant. "We still turned the ball over more than we should have, but I think we always had great intentions and we moved the ball from side to side tonight."
In league history, 94 percent of teams to open a seven-game set 2-0 have gone on to advance.
The Spurs sadly know all about the six percent.
San Antonio held this exact margin in the 2012 Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City, only to lose the next four and watch the Thunder lose to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Game 5 will be Thursday night in San Antonio.