Originally Published: May 25, 2014

1. Serge Ibaka Gives Thunder Hero They Needed

By Royce Young | Special to ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Serge Ibaka walked out for his pregame warmup, some 90 minutes before tipoff and stopped at midcourt to talk with team doctor Donnie Strack.

The Oklahoma City Thunder forward was a game-time decision because of a strained left calf, saying at shootaround earlier that morning that he'd only know if he was going to be available for Game 3 of the West finals with the San Antonio Spurs after seeing how he felt before the game. And when he stopped to talk with Strack, the music in the arena cut off, almost like the building was holding its breath.

After about 30 seconds, Ibaka nodded, and went into his routine, knocking down uncontested jumpers as assistant coach Mark Bryant fed him.

He knew right then: He was going to play in a game, one that he would help turn into a 106-97 win for the Thunder.

It was going to be a matter of pain tolerance, and as Ibaka said over the weekend, he's a tough guy. Because he had to be. The third-youngest of 18 children, Ibaka lost his mother and saw his father imprisoned during the Second Congo War, using basketball as his escape from a different kind of pain.

So playing on a bum calf? That's nothing.

When he was told last week he was done for the postseason, Ibaka cried. He's regarded as maybe the team's hardest worker, and the thought of it being for nothing this season left him wrecked. But with his team in an 0-2 hole as the Spurs paraded around the paint with effortless layups, Ibaka made his mind up. He wasn't going to sit and watch it anymore. The swelling in his calf unexpectedly went down, and with pain being the only obstacle, Ibaka was playing. He was asked Sunday morning what kind of changes the Thunder could make in Game 3, specifically on the defensive end. Even if he was able to play, probably on one leg, how could the Thunder possibly adjust enough to stop the clinical offensive light show the Spurs were putting on?

"You will see tonight," Ibaka said Sunday morning. "You will see tonight."

The Thunder's first possession was a high pick-and-pop for Ibaka, with Russell Westbrook setting his big man up in rhythm for a knockdown 18-footer. Two minutes later, Ibaka was swatting his first shot. It was obvious almost immediately that this Thunder team was different, that it was whole again. All it took to magically fix them was to re-add one of their best players. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

"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."

With an emotionally charged home crowd feeding off the desperation the Thunder were playing with, there was a newfound intensity. Ibaka was at the heart of it, playing through obvious pain and discomfort. A few different times he came up limping, but every time waved off the Thunder's bench, giving a thumbs-up to signal he was OK. Every time he came off the court he got on a stationary bike and then had both calves wrapped. He went back to the locker room with trainers multiple times. But nothing was keeping off the court in Game 3.

"When you talk about a teammate, that's everything you want your teammate to embody, a guy that gives himself up for the team," Kevin 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."

Ibaka's final line: 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocks. Not to mention some serious emotional lifting.

"Words can't describe it," Caron Butler said. "In my career I have been part of a lot of great moments in basketball history. And that was a special one right there."

The Thunder were a disheveled mess in the first two games of the series, clearly at a loss without the safety net Ibaka provides on the defensive interior. The Spurs cruised to 66 points in the paint in Game 1, then followed up with 54 in Game 2. They shot 76.8 percent inside the restricted area, and 67 percent inside the paint.

That changed in Game 3. The 12 previous games with Ibaka playing, the Spurs averaged 40.3 points in the paint. In Game 3, they had 40. They shot 50 percent inside the restricted area and 48 percent in the paint. Tony Parker was routinely forced to either kick to a corner or circle his way back out of the paint because Ibaka was lurking.

"He makes you think twice about going in there," Westbrook said. "And you saw that tonight."

Ibaka has built a deserved reputation as an all-world rim protector that erases points like he apparently erases calf injuries, but his presence was equally felt offensively. It took Ibaka just 11 minutes to outscore the Thunder's other three starters (Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha) in Games 1 and 2. He provided a pressure release for Westbrook and Durant to operate with, opening the game for the Thunder's previously clogged offense. The constant threat of Ibaka at the elbows forced the Spurs to help off more liberally, creating lanes for Westbrook and Durant to attack.

The Thunder looked like themselves again, playing with a palpable ferocity and energy that the Spurs couldn't ever match. Ibaka's Willis Reed moment was what the Thunder needed, giving them a hope that they couldn't ever experience last postseason without Westbrook. They were facing two straight seasons derailed by bad luck, but Ibaka wasn't having it. How he responds with just one day between games is unknown, but it probably doesn't matter. Because his mind is probably already made up anyway.

"My pain is pain," Ibaka said, "and I don't want to be here to talk about the pain. Most importantly we got the win tonight, and the focus is about the next game."

Dimes past: May 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 24

Royce Young

ESPN Staff Writer

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