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SAN ANTONIO – Far from the beginnings of these Western Conference finals, far from these unfortified Oklahoma City Thunder, Serge Ibaka is defiant and determined for the world to witness his Willis Reed moment. Ibaka, so proud, so professional, is respectively raging against his injury diagnosis.
Ibaka is back in Oklahoma City for Games 1 and 2 – ruled out of the playoffs with a lower leg injury – but his willingness to play with pain, his loyalty to the championship cause, has him thinking about starting some stationary shooting late this week, a league source told Yahoo Sports on Monday.
How the ever-conservative and protective Thunder will react to Ibaka's eagerness is uncertain, but coach Scott Brooks repeated over and over late Monday: "He's not coming through those doors. … He's not coming back."
Nevertheless, Ibaka had to be watching the San Antonio Spurs drill the Thunder 122-105 in Game 1 and the loss had to make him further hell-bent on fighting to find a way to the floor. Ibaka is 6-foot-10, 245 pounds and one of the NBA's best shot-blockers for four years running. His absence is a killer for Oklahoma City, a deathblow.
Deep down, Ibaka understands his medical timetable couldn't possibly include a return to these conference finals, but no one has yet talked him out of the belief he'd be back in the lineup if the Thunder advanced to the NBA Finals, a source said. The Thunder believed this injury would be a one-to-two-month recovery period. Without a tear in that plantaris muscle, though, Ibaka wants to believe it can be sooner.
For now, Ibaka needs the rest of his teammates to make a stand. With him, Oklahoma City had beaten San Antonio 10 of the past 12 games. Without him, the Thunder were humiliated in Game 1. Tim Duncan had an incredible performance – 27 points in 29 minutes – and Manu Ginobili dribbled and dived to the rim, and the Spurs had no inhibitions on getting to the basket.
The clock turned back in the AT&T Center, and these old Spurs resembled younger, spryer selves. Everything was embarrassingly easy for the Spurs, and somehow it has to stop for the Thunder.
"Missing Serge is pretty tough," Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson said. "…[You can get] a little lazy having somebody that is an eraser back there like that, altering so many shots. …Your body tells you a few things – "just send them Serge's way." We have to get out of that mindset."
"We didn't stop nothing," Kendrick Perkins said flatly. "They got whatever they wanted against us."
People have long underappreciated Ibaka, underestimated his importance for Oklahoma City. Some thought the Thunder should've kept James Harden on a max contract, and let Ibaka and his four-year, $48 million deal go. Yet, the Thunder need a rim-protector, need his athleticism on the backline and his agility to control the point of attack on the pick-and-roll. Duncan destroyed the Thunder, and this problem doesn't go away easily for them.
General manager Sam Presti's and Brooks' directive is clear: The Thunder can't count on Ibaka, so they need to get him out of their minds and out of their excuses. Whatever their instincts, they have to come to terms with the fact Ibaka won't be waiting at the rim to change shots, change the game.
He won't be walking through that door, Brooks insisted late Monday, but Ibaka hasn't lost hope with walking through that tunnel the way old Willis Reed did in the NBA Finals back in 1970. Between now and then, the Thunder must find a way without Ibaka to beat the genius of these San Antonio Spurs.
Against the odds, against the clock, Serge Ibaka has a mind to make his way back onto the court. Maybe it starts with some shooting on Friday and Saturday in Oklahoma City, and maybe a Thunder victory on Sunday. The Thunder desperately needed Ibaka on Monday night and they'll need him on Wednesday, too.
Nevertheless, Scott Brooks is right: Ibaka isn't walking through that door.
Not yet, anyway.