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.”
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