OKLAHOMA CITY — With three minutes left in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka sat on the bench, his face buried in a towel.
He held it there for several moments as he tried to hide the emotion coming out of him.
On an injured leg, Ibaka produced an inspiring performance Sunday that helped lead the Thunder to a series-saving 106-97 victory over the San Antonio Spurs at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Buoyed by the return of the shot-blocking forward, the Thunder sliced the Spurs’ lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1. Game 4 will be played Tuesday in Oklahoma City.
“When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want your teammate to embody is a guy who gives himself up for the team,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said of Ibaka. “Gives his body up for the team. No matter how this game would have went tonight, I gained so much more respect for Serge, giving up his body for the team.”
Ibaka, who missed the series’ first two games due to a left calf strain, scored 15 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. The Thunder previously announced that Ibaka was out for the remainder of the playoffs, so his presence Sunday set the tone for the entire squad.
“I think I did pretty well,” Ibaka said. “Not just me, but my teammates, too. We did a great job making (the Spurs) make some tough shots. I just tried to give my teammates some energy help on offense and to make my presence in the paint.”
Ibaka set the tone for the Thunder defensively. Oklahoma City limited San Antonio to 39.6 percent shooting, while the Thunder hit 45.7 percent of their shots from the floor. During Ibaka’s absence, the Spurs hit at least 50 percent of their shots in each of the opening two games.
Guard Russell Westbrook scored 26 points Sunday, and forward Kevin Durant added 25 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.
“I was very disappointed that we didn’t come out with more of a foot-on-the-neck sort of attitude,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “They killed us on the boards, they beat us to 50/50 balls, and that’s very disappointing to me. That’s not the way you approach a game.”
Leading by seven, the Thunder began the fourth quarter with a flurry. Buckets by guard Reggie Jackson and Durant plus a 3-pointer from forward Caron Butler pushed the advantage to 90-76 with 10:11 left.
San Antonio tried to respond, but it was the Thunder’s night. Oklahoma outscored the Spurs 9-6 over the next four minutes before Popovich emptied his bench with his team trailing by 17.
Westbrook also tallied eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals, though he committed five turnovers.
Guard Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with 23 points off the bench. Forward Tim Duncan added 16 points and eight rebounds. Guard Tony Parker was held to nine points and four assists.
“Hopefully, we realize that if we’re not intense, if we’re not very sharp and we don’t hustle like crazy, we’re not going to win here,” Ginobili said. “Maybe we thought that it was OK and we were going to win here playing so-so. It’s not going to happen.”
It only took 38 seconds for Ibaka to make his first impact of the game. He scored the game’s first basket on a midrange jumper. He then hit his next three shots.
However, he made his largest contribution on defense. The Spurs scored only 12 points in the paint during the first quarter as they held a 29-28 lead. The combination of Ibaka and center Steven Adams forced San Antonio to alter their shots when driving into the lane.
“He’s done what he’s been doing for us all season, came out with a great mindset defensively, altered some shots, blocked some shots,” Westbrook said. “He makes you think twice about going in there, and you seen that tonight.”
NOTES: In addition to reinserting F Serge Ibaka into the lineup, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks started G Reggie Jackson in place of G Thabo Sefolosha, who didn’t score a point in the series’ first two games. “He gives us another guy that can attack,” Brooks said of Jackson, who scored 15 points Sunday. “He gives us another guy that can play pick-and-roll offensively. He gives us another guy that can get opportunities on the side to attack their defense.” .. San Antonio G Tony Parker took advantage of the three days off between Game 2 and Game 3. “I feel pretty good,” Parker said. “The extra days definitely helped, so hopefully … I can get my full speed back. I was surprised when I looked at the schedule. I was like, man, if I can survive the first two games, I’ll be OK for the rest of the series.”
Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair
If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.
Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.
Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”
Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.
Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?
“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”
The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.
“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”
Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.
“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”
Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.
Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.
“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”
The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.
Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.
“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.
Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.
The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.
Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.
NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.
Spurs’ Ginobili sprains ankle
SAN ANTONIO — Guard Manu Ginobili was helped off the floor late in the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday due to a sprained right ankle.
Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points. He was immediately was led to the locker room, and he did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court. He did not return to the game.
In 19 minutes during the Spurs’ 123-97 win over the Timberwolves, Ginobili scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday and leading him to play limited minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
NBA notebook: Clippers’ Griffin cleared to return
Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, out the last 15 games with an elbow injury, was cleared to return Sunday against the Houston Rockets.
Griffin had surgery five weeks ago to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.
“He said, ‘I’m ready,'” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Sunday’s game. “Yesterday the trainers called me and said, ‘If he can go, he can go. He’s been cleared.'”
Rivers said timing likely will be an adjustment for Griffin.
“Timing is timing,” Rivers said. “You lose it when you don’t play in an NBA game. Sometimes you come back and you play great the first game and then you lose your timing. Sometimes it doesn’t. As far as the way we play, it won’t be hard for him at all.”
In 51 games this season, Griffin is averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
–Spurs guard Manu Ginobili had to be helped off the floor late in the third quarter against Minnesota on Sunday. Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points.
He was helped off the floor and immediately was led to the locker room. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court.
Up to that point, Ginobili had scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against Toronto and play limited minutes against Cleveland on March 12.
–Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sent emails to three fans who were disappointed that he rested several prominent players, including All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver.
“There’s two really good sides to the story,” Kerr said, according to the Associated Press report. “Nobody’s wrong here. … I can’t argue with them.”
Kerr received an email from a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver to see Curry, Thompson and the entertaining Warriors play. But Curry, Thompson, center Andrew Bogut and reserve guard Andre Iguodala did not play so they could be rested, and the Warriors lost 114-103.
“I heard from some fans. I received a few emails, stories about driving in from a long distance off and spending a lot of money on tickets,” Kerr said. “I have great sympathy for those people. I really do. It’s a tricky one. It’s something that I think Adam Silver is trying to address through the scheduling shuffling that he’s talking about.
–The Dallas Mavericks recalled center/forward Dwight Powell from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Powell played in one game during his most recent assignment to the D-League and finished with 28 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead the Legends in a 115-89 win over the Austin Spurs on Saturday night.
Powell has appeared in 19 games for the Mavericks this season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game.
–The Atlanta Hawks signed forward Austin Daye to a 10-day contract Sunday.
Daye appeared in 26 games (four starts) earlier this season with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes.
In 10 games this season with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League, Daye has averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 28.5 minutes.
–The Miami Heat recalled guard Zoran Dragic from the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
Zoran appeared in four games (one start) and averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.50 steals, helping the Skyforce to a 3-1 record over that span.