The Thunder's injured big man returned with a flourish, inspiring Oklahoma City to a 106-97 victory that cut San Antonio's series lead to 2-1.
5 things to know
OKC's Serge protector returns
That happened exactly as Serge Ibaka dreamed it up. Returning despite being ruled out for the season a week prior, Ibaka hit the game's first bucket ... and kept on going, starting the game 5-5 and finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds and -- most importantly -- four blocks. San Antonio feasted in the paint in the first two games of the series, shooting 76 percent in the restricted area; they shot just 50 percent at the rim in Game 3.
Ibaka winced and limped a few times, but otherwise showed little in the way of lasting effects from his injury other than the usual conditioning issues unavoidable after being laid up for 10 days. The question is how much of his brilliant Game 3 came out of adrenaline and how much will be back for Game 4 on Tuesday.
The first three games of the series have shown how important Ibaka is on both sides of the floor. Oklahoma City needs him in all his full glory to have a chance at three more wins. -Tom Ziller
The Spurs are just fine
Although it seems like the San Antonio Spurs are immune to the whims of basketball, even they can have a bad night. They shot less than 40 percent and couldn’t get to the free throw line as jumper after jumper rimmed out. The Spurs admirably hung around for three quarters thanks to some wizardry from Manu Ginobili, but the big run never came.
There were culprits all around. Tony Parker was neutralized by Russell Westbrook into one of his worst games of the postseason, which short-circuited San Antonio’s offense. Danny Green’s shooting was off and Kawhi Leonard was ineffective. Now we have a huge Game 4 on tap for a series that looked over just two days ago, in a building the Spurs haven’t won since blowing a 2-0 lead in the conference finals back in 2012.
It’s tempting to draw parallels to that series, especially with Serge Ibaka back in OKC’s lineup, but San Antonio is still very much in control. It stands to reason that the Spurs won’t go 22 free throws between trips to the line again, nor are they likely to miss so many open jumpers. As bad a loss as this was, this felt like just a long-overdue bad day at the office. -Paul Flannery
Scott Brooks: Mad scientist
For a coach with a reputation for being slow to adjust, Scott Brooks sure has been willing to make major changes this postseason. The Thunder don't win their first-round series without Brooks' decision to start Caron Butler over Thabo Sefolosha prior to Game 6. They don't win their second-round series without Brooks dialing back Oklahoma City's pressure defense a tad after Game 1 or his deployment of the Steven Adams/Nick Collison tandem in the Game 6 clicher.
And they sure as hell don't win Game 3 against the Spurs without Brooks' key rotation changes. Serge Ibaka's return was critical, but so was Brooks' decision to start Reggie Jackson, elevate Adams and Jeremy Lamb and bench Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha. Jackson consistently attacked the gaps in San Antonio's defense while providing great ball pressure, while Lamb and Adams made key contributions off the bench. All were threats, which forced the Spurs to honor them, which opened up drive-and-kick opportunities.
Brooks' offensive system is still too simple, Kendrick Perkins still plays too much and the Thunder aren't out of the woods yet in this series. But perhaps it's time to stop saying Brooks is too stubborn to make adjustments. -Mike Prada
Manu, Russ and a classic shootout
Back in the old West, there wasn't anything more thrilling than a good ol' fashioned duel. In the new West, not much has changed. Russell Westbrook and Manu Ginobili engaged in a shootout reminiscent of the old days in the waning moments of the first half.
Ginobili scored 20 points in the first half, keeping the Spurs in the game while Tony Parker and most of the rest of his teammates struggled. But after Ginobili hit a three to get the Spurs back to within a point, Westbrook answered with a three of his own. Ginobili then buried yet another three, only to see Westbrook hit a crazy trey to beat the buzzer and put Oklahoma City up four at the break.
Westbrook carried the momentum from his long-range bomb into the second half, tallying 14 second-half points on 5-of-9 shooting and leading the Thunder to an impressive 106-97 victory. Meanwhile, Ginobili scored just three points in the second half and suffered a foot injury, although it's not expected to be serious. Westbrook won the duel on this night. -Jason Patt
Some questions about phones
I'd like to raise the following issues with Caron Butler's phone celebration, which has now spread to the rest of the Thunder.
Does Caron use a flip phone? Because doesn't the pinky represent the other end of a burner? Is Caron evading the law each time he hits a three?
It's 2014. Wouldn't it make more sense for Caron to get with the times? Shouldn't he instead be typing a text message or logging into Skype? Or at least getting on speaker phone?
How are Hasheem Thabeet and Andre Roberson both answering the phone? Are they all dialing in to a conference call line? How many Thunder players have the number? Is this music greeting them? Dammit Hasheem mute your phone.
Why can't the NBA just allow Butler to do this again? Cut the phone crap and keep Sam Cassell's legacy intact. -Mike Prada
Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat Eastern Conference Finals, Game 4Miami leads 2-18:30 p.m. ET | ESPN American Airlines Arena, Miami, Fla.