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Ibaka's Return About Much More Than On-Court Production

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The stakes weren't as high, but Serge Ibaka's comeback and subsequent performance were about as Willis Reed-esque as it could get.

He even scored the first basket of the game, a perfect jumper from the top of the foul circle.

Ibaka's value to the Thunder can never be questioned again. The difference with him on the court Sunday night in the Thunder's 106-97 Game 3 victory was so drastic from Game 2's horrendous performance, it was almost impossible to believe.

Not to say Ibaka's actual play was the difference in a 35-point loss on Wednesday and a 20-point fourth quarter lead on Sunday. That's not the case at all. But the emotional part of the game always seems to be overlooked, especially with this Oklahoma City team.

The Thunder's young core is not simply teammates; they're close friends. They have built the Thunder into what it is today and grown as individuals in the process. That's a rare thing to see in professional sports today, but Oklahoma City is the epitome of it.

When Ibaka is on the court with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, there's a comfort that can't be matched by simply inserting Nick Collison into the lineup, regardless of what basketball smarts and skills Collison brings to the table. That comfort returned on Sunday and the result was a huge win.

As for what Ibaka did bring with his play on Sunday, well, it was substantial. Not only did he score 15 points and add seven rebounds to help OKC to a 52-36 rebounding advantage, but it was—predictably—his defense that changed the game and quite possibly changed the series.

RELATED: OKC Cruises Past Spurs In Game 3

After scoring 66 and 54 points in the paint in the first two games, the Spurs scored just 40 in the paint on Sunday. The Spurs shot just 39.6 percent from the field, including these performances from key players inside the arc: Tim Duncan- 7-of-17, Tony Parker- 3-of-12, Danny Green- 1-of-6, Boris Diaw- 3-of-7. In the first half, with Ibaka on the floor, the Spurs average FG attempt was from 16.4 feet, per ESPN.

Those numbers tell the tale of how much Ibaka means to Oklahoma City's defense. He IS Oklahoma City's defense. And when he and Steven Adams were on the court together, the road to the basket for the Spurs was pretty much impassable. Adams finished with nine rebounds and four blocks of his own. There's no such thing as an easy basket with Adams and Ibaka looming in the paint.

You can't forget to mention the adjustments Scott Brooks made to the rotation. First, he started Reggie Jackson over Thabo Sefolosha, a move that helped the Thunder get off to a fast start out of the gate. Two Thunder players didn't see the court at all on Sunday: Sefolosha and Collison, two players that started the first two games of the series.

RELATED: Game 3 Quoteboard

Jeremy Lamb also played 17 quality minutes. Caron Butler and Derek Fisher didn't provide a lot on offense, but they played solid team defense and help OKC shut down the Spurs' attack.

With this Game 3 win, we've got an entirely different series. If Ibaka continues to improve and return completely to his normal self, there's plenty of reason to think the Thunder can come back and win the series. If they do, it will be because Serge Ibaka decided to become Willis Reed.

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