• IBAKA’S RETURN SPARKS THUNDER TO WIN OVER SPURS

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    Serge Ibaka No.9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after blocking the shot of Tony Parker No.9 of the San Antonio Spurs in the second half during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. AFP PHOTO

    Serge Ibaka No.9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after blocking the shot of Tony Parker No.9 of the San Antonio Spurs in the second half during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. AFP PHOTO

    OKLAHOMA CITY: Serge Ibaka returned from injury and sparked the Oklahoma City Thunder to a much-needed 106-97 NBA playoff victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday (Monday in Manila).

    With the victory the Thunder climbed back into the best-of-seven Western Conference finals. They now trail two-games-to-one after the Spurs won the first two games by an average of 26 points.

    The Thunder will try to level the series when they host game four on Tuesday.

    The winners of the series will face either two-time defending NBA champions Miami or Indiana for the NBA crown.

    Russell Westbrook scored 26 points with seven assists and eight rebounds for the Thunder, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds from NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant.

    But the injection of energy from Ibaka, who missed the first two games of the series with a left calf injury that was expected to sideline him for the rest of the playoffs, was key.

    Two days after his injury status was upgraded to day-to-day, Ibaka was inserted into the starting lineup and hit his first five shots from the floor.

    He also provided a strong defensive presence, with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saying he was “everywhere.”

    “Serge is always great in the paint, he blocks shots, he changes shots. He did a fine job,” Popovich said.

    Without Ibaka, the Thunder had allowed the Spurs to shoot at least 50 percent in the first two games.

    In this one, the Spurs shot just 39.6 percent, connecting on just 36 of 91 from the floor.

    Spain’s Ibaka finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots in just under 30 minutes on the floor.

    Manu Ginobili scored 23 points—making six three-pointers—and Tim Duncan added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Spurs.

    However, San Antonio point guard Tony Parker endured a tough night, connecting on just four of his 13 attempts from the field and finishing with nine points.

    “OKC played well,” Parker said. “We didn’t take care of the ball.”

    Poor Spurs defense
    However, Popovich said the Spurs’ biggest problem was their failure to come out with intensity after their two big wins.

    “I was very disappointed that we didn’t come out with more of a foot-on-the-neck attitude,” Popovich said. “They killed us on the boards. They beat us on 50-50 balls, and that’s very disappointing to me.”

    Popovich called the first half “probably the poorest defense we’ve played in a very long time.”

    In the third, however, the Thunder began to pull away.

    Two Kendrick Perkins free throws at the 8:36 mark of the third capped a 10-2 scoring burst that gave Oklahoma City a 67-57 lead.

    Ginobili made a three-pointer to pull the Spurs within 75-71 with 2:46 to go in the period, but the Thunder extended the margin to 83-76 going into the fourth quarter.

    The hosts led by as many as 20 in the final period, and the Spurs didn’t narrow the gap into single digits until the waning moments.

    AFP

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