Serge Ibaka scored 15 points in a dramatic return from what was thought to be a season-ending left calf strain to help the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs 106-97 on Sunday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Russell Westbrook had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and Kevin Durant added 25 points and 10 rebounds to help the Thunder cut the Spurs’ lead in the series to 2-1.
Ibaka started after missing the first two games of the series. The Thunder had said he likely would miss the rest of the playoffs, but the team changed course Friday.
Manu Ginobili scored 23 points and Tim Duncan added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Spurs.
Game 4 is Tuesday night at Oklahoma City.
Ibaka, who also had seven rebounds and four blocks, pointed to the sky as he left the game to cheers with 3:17 remaining and the Thunder ahead by 20 points.
The Thunder outrebounded the Spurs 52-36 after losing the battle of the boards in the first two games. San Antonio, which shot at least 50 percent in the first two games, shot just 40 percent.
San Antonio won the first two games by a combined 52 points, but things were different from the start with Ibaka’s return. Thunder coach Scott Brooks also inserted speedy Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup in Thabo Sefolosha’s place. Jackson finished with 15 points.
The crowd roared when Ibaka’s name was announced during pregame introductions, and it got even louder when he started playing. He had eight points, three rebounds and two blocks in just over six minutes of play in the first quarter.
Twice in the final minute of the first half, Ginobili hit 3-pointers, and both times, Westbrook answered with a 3-pointer. The last one, with 0.6 seconds left, gave the Thunder a 57-53 lead. Oklahoma City shot 56 percent in the first half, but turned the ball over 12 times. Ginobili had 20 points and made 5 of 7 3-pointers before the break to keep the Spurs close.
Oklahoma City extended its lead to 83-76 at the end of the third quarter. A runner by Durant, then a 3-pointer by Caron Butler pushed the Thunder lead to 90-76 with just over 10 minutes to play.
In the 2011 NBA Finals, LeBron James spent too much time for his liking talking about his purported rivalry with an easily excitable guard named Stevenson.
There’s a new rival now.
His name sounds the same. Different spelling, though.
Back then, it was Dallas’ DeShawn Stevenson. In these Eastern Conference finals, it’s Indiana’s Lance Stephenson in the foil role. James sees the obvious parallels but isn’t interested in stoking the fires — especially with the Heat leading the Pacers 2-1 heading into tonight’s Game 4, one that could allow Miami to put a stranglehold on the series.
“Winning the game is more important,” James said. “I understand what the main goal is.”
Still, it seems fair to say that Stephenson and James got each other going often in Game 3. When the Pacers finished practice Sunday, Stephenson talked about how he enjoys ruffling the four-time MVP’s feathers.
“To me, I think it’s a sign of weakness,” Stephenson said. “He never used to say anything to me. Now he’s trying to do it to me. So I feel like it’s a weakness. I feel like I’m doing something right because I’m getting under his skin.”