There are a number of things to point to as to why Oklahoma City was able to flip the script of this Western Conference Finals series on Sunday night in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Serge Ibaka was undeniably incredible in his return, Reggie Jackson was fantastic in his insertion into the starting lineup, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook returned to form, and the friendly environs seemed to comfort the Thunder's role players, to name a few.
But if any one thing truly made the difference for OKC in its critical 106-97 Game 3 victory against the Spurs on Sunday, it was what San Antonio veteran Manu Ginobili pointed to after the contest: the Thunder's intensity.
"I think that the difference in intensity was the biggest key, not X's and O's, particularly," Ginobili said. "When you see 52-35 I think on the boards, every loose ball was theirs … maybe Ibaka really helped them, but the bottom line is that we played bad and they played with a lot of emotion because they knew they had to win this game."
The Thunder did need to win on Sunday and it did so with relative ease in a game that was far more lopsided than the final score indicated after the Spurs mounted a late rally in garbage time.
And the reason for that intensity likely was a culmination of all of the aforementioned factors. The lineup adjustments, Serge's impactful return and a change of scenery combined to give the Thunder a clean slate mentally and Sunday's result was far more resemblant of the four regular season tilts than the first two duds of this series for OKC.
And if Oklahoma City's resilient, never-say-die mentality in this game can be boiled down to one particular moment, it was when a scary scene unfolded in the third quarter.
Ibaka came up lame after falling to the court and labored down the floor as The Peake held its collective breath in horror. Then Ibaka glanced over to the Thunder bench, waved off a potential substitution and proclaimed: "I'm good."
It was more than a relief moment for the Thunder, it was a triumphant snapshot of the attitude shift this team needed to turn the corner and force its way back into the series.
"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, gives his body up for the team," Durant said of Ibaka. "No matter how this game would have went tonight, I gained so much more respect for Serge tonight for laying it on the line for us; putting his body out there and sacrificing his health for the betterment of the team. I'm glad we won the basketball game, but no matter what would have happened tonight, that's something you want to have beside you every single day."
And the Thunder took that warrior mentality and ran with it.
Oklahoma City just appeared to care more, work harder, attack with more ferocity and outplay the Spurs for the entirety of the game.
Ibaka and Jackson entering the starting five gave OKC exactly the lift it needed. The Thunder was once again the team attacking and forcing the issue, rather than settling for bad shots and over-rotating on defense.
And Ibaka had a major impact on the Thunder's defensive efforts, but also played a big role on the offensive end. He gave the Thunder the floor spacing it so sorely lacked and made San Antonio pay by hitting his first five shots, finishing the game with 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.
And it was easy to see how his high-effort, efficient performance manifested itself within the team on both ends.
As bad as Oklahoma City was in Game 2 in all facets, it was that good on Sunday. The Thunder held the Spurs to just 39.6 percent shooting for the game and crushed the Spurs in the rebounding department, winning that battle to the tune of 52-36. OKC also forced San Antonio into uncharacteristic turnovers, forced shots and off-balance defensive rotations.
The Thunder took the typically calm and collected Spurs and put them on their heels, never allowing San Antonio back into the contest with key defensive stops and momentum-shifting plays on the offensive end to eliminate any threat of a comeback the Spurs attempted to mount.
"I liked how our defense got better as the game went on. We were active, did a good job of helping for one another. Our bigs did a great job protecting the paint, protecting the basket, but that's what they do. They've done that all year. Obviously Serge came in and gave us a big lift, not only on the defensive end but on the offensive end. Our offense was really good in the first half and then I thought our defense did a really good job in the second half of really keeping them from getting easy buckets."
The numbers validate Brooks' statements pretty convincingly. Oklahoma City's offense ran noticeably smoother — save for 16 turnovers — with 45.6 percent shooting, nine players scoring, 46 points in the paint and 15 more free throw attempts than the Spurs. Defensively, OKC held San Antonio below 40 percent shooting overall and 48 percent shooting in the pain, compared to 67 percent in the first two meetings.
As previously mentioned, Jackson was a big part of the Thunder's success, as well, finishing with 15 points and five assists.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook each went 8-of-19 from the field and 8-of-8 from the foul line. Westbrook scored 26 points with eight rebounds and seven assists, while Durant had 25 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
Manu Ginobili had 23 points to lead the Spurs, but 20 of those came in the first half when he hit 5-of-7 from 3-point range. Tim Duncan had 16 points and Kawhi Leonard had 10 points.
Game 4 is scheduled for Tuesday at 8 p.m. in Oklahoma City as the Thunder attempts to even the series at two games a piece.