The Willis Reed-like comeback of Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka was the last thing the San Antonio Spurs wanted to see in the Western Conference finals. Ibaka provided what the Thunder lacked most: hope.
After suffering blowout losses in the first two games that brought to mind a switch and a woodshed, Oklahoma City needed something around which to rally. It’s not surprising the Thunder got it from Ibaka, who has as much heart as any player in the game.
By playing in Sunday’s Game 3 victory despite a calf injury that was expected to cut short his season, the shot-blocking big man inspired his struggling teammates, who finally showed some fight. That fight continued Tuesday night as the Thunder evened the best-of-seven series in Game 4 with a 105-92 victory.
Ibaka delivered in the grand tradition of professional athletes who have re-energized their teams at the most opportune moments while overcoming the effects of injuries and illness: Reed, Kirk Gibson, Michael Jordan, Emmitt Smith. If Oklahoma City rallies to win the series, Ibaka’s first appearance will be the clear catalyst.
Ibaka scored 15 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots in 30 minutes in Game 3. He continued to be effective on Tuesday with nine points and eight rebounds — seven on the defensive end — while blocking three shots. Those are impressive stat lines for someone returning from an injury. The box scores alone, however, can’t adequately illustrate Ibaka’s impact.
The Thunder is built around league MVP Kevin Durant. It’s powered by all-NBA guard Russell Westbrook.
But Ibaka, a low-post enforcer who finished second in the league in blocks, is the team’s anchor on defense. Without Ibaka, Oklahoma City is merely another high-scoring team with a turnstile defense.
Ibaka has brought back toughness. Suddenly, Spurs point guard Tony Parker doesn’t score in the lane whenever he pleases. Ibaka doesn’t have to block every shot. Often, the threat of him standing near the rim is enough to deter San Antonio. In Game 3, Ibaka returned, and so did the Thunder’s swagger.
“When you talk about a teammate, that’s everything you want in a teammate,” Durant told reporters after the game. “I gained so much more respect for Serge for sacrificing himself for the team. Regardless of what happened, that’s something you want beside you.”
Thunder players never would acknowledge they feared playing without Ibaka, but they didn’t have to say anything. During the first two games in San Antonio, the stunned look on their faces revealed their concern. They were all smiles after Sunday’s rout. Confidence makes a big difference: Even the most talented teams need to believe in themselves.
For the Thunder, the sight of Ibaka in the opening lineup in Game 3 was a desperately needed shot in the arm. The fact that Ibaka played well was an added bonus.
In Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Reed did just enough to rev up the New York Knicks.
It was unknown whether Reed, the Knicks’ starting center and that season’s league MVP, would play after he suffered a leg injury in Game 5. The Los Angeles Lakers capitalized on his absence in Game 6, evening the series on their home court. That set the stage for a legendary comeback performance after the most dramatic entrance in NBA history.
Reed received a thunderous ovation as he ran onto the court shortly before tip-off at Madison Square Garden. It continued as he connected on the team’s first two field goals and was active on defense. Although Reed finished with just four points, the Knicks rode the emotion of his return and pummeled the Lakers en route to the title.
Sometimes a successful comeback performance can be a great statistical one, too.
Despite suffering from dehydration and flu-like symptoms during Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan scored 38 points to put the Chicago Bulls within one win of a championship. The Bulls finished the job with a victory in Game 6 over the Utah Jazz.
In the NFL, players regularly cope with major injuries in an effort to return to the field as quickly as possible, but some comeback performances stand out. While playing with a separated shoulder against the New York Giants, Smith gained 229 yards from scrimmage in a victory that gave the Dallas Cowboys home-field advantage throughout the 1993 NFC playoffs. The Cowboys won that season’s Super Bowl.
In baseball, Gibson, a star Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and the 1988 National League MVP, was not expected to play in the World Series because of leg injuries he suffered in the NL championship series. With one on and the Dodgers trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, Gibson was summoned to pinch-hit against dominant Oakland Athletics closer Dennis Eckersley. Gibson hit a two-run, walk-off home run. The victory propelled the underdog Dodgers to a surprising five-game series win over the powerful Athletics.
Gibson, Reed, Jordan and Smith all possessed enormous wills to win. It defined their careers. It’s also a trait Ibaka displayed while helping the Thunder regroup.
In the heat of the playoffs, Ibaka ignored his pain and inspired the Thunder to keep battling. For that, Ibaka has his teammates’ gratitude. He earned it.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.