- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Serge Ibaka knew playing on his injured leg would be painful.

He didn’t care.

Oklahoma City’s defensive star made a dramatic return Sunday night from what was thought to be a season-ending left calf strain. He started and scored 15 points to help the Thunder defeat the San Antonio Spurs 106-97 and cut the Spurs‘ lead in the Western Conference finals series to 2-1.

Ibaka had mentally prepared for the discomfort in the days leading up to the game. He said the pain was relative, given his early life struggles in the Republic of Congo.

“Well, pain is pain, and I don’t want to be here to talk about the pain,” he said after the game. “Most importantly, we got that win tonight, and the focus is about next game.”

Ibaka missed the first two games of the series. The Thunder originally said he would miss the rest of the playoffs, but changed course Friday. He participated in the team’s shootaround Sunday morning, then got positive feedback from the team’s medical staff as the game approached.

The crowd roared when Ibaka’s name was announced during pregame introductions, and it got even louder when Ibaka started playing. He scored the first points of the game on a 19-foot jumper.

“Words can’t describe it,” Thunder forward Caron Butler said. “It was a great moment. We just kind of rode that energy from the crowd, from the beginning, right out till the fourth quarter.”

Ibaka had eight points, three rebounds and two blocks in just over six minutes of play in the first quarter. He went to an elliptical machine when he was not playing to stay loose. At one point, he took a fall and came up limping slightly before walking it off.

It was all worth it. Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks took him out with 3:17 remaining and the Thunder ahead by 20.

“I was just trying to do my job, stay focused, do the best I can do to help my team,” Ibaka said.

He made six of seven shots and his presence eased the pressure on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and Durant added 25 points and 10 rebounds.

On defense, Ibaka blocked and altered shots and used his still formidable mobility to close out on shooters. He had seven rebounds, four blocks and a seemingly endless amount of energy.

Serge has put so much work in throughout the season that missing a couple of days didn’t hurt him,” Westbrook said. “Tonight, he jumped right back into where he was.”

Manu Ginobili scored 23 points and Tim Duncan added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Spurs.

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