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OKLAHOMA CITY – 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.
Game 4 is Tuesday night at Oklahoma City.
The Thunder outrebounded the Spurs 52-36 after losing the battle of the boards in the first two games. San Antonio, which shot at least 50 percent in the first two games, shot just 40 percent on Sunday night. The first two games looked like a layup drill for the Spurs. This time, they were forced to reset numerous times. The passes were not as quick or as easy.
"I was very disappointed that we didn't come out with more of a foot-in-the-neck sort of attitude," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "They killed us on the boards, they beat us in 50-50 balls and that's very disappointing to me."
San Antonio had humiliated the Thunder 112-77 in Game 2.
"I knew that we were a better team than losing by 30," Brooks said. "It's not us. It was us that night, but we're a much better team than that. I have a lot of respect for San Antonio, but they're not that much better than us."
Things were different from the start with Ibaka's return. Brooks also inserted speedy Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup in Thabo Sefolosha's place. Jackson finished with 15 points.
Twice in the final minute of the first half, Ginobili hit 3-pointers, and both times, Westbrook answered with a 3-pointer. The last one, with 0.6 seconds left, gave the Thunder a 57-53 lead. Oklahoma City shot 56 percent in the first half but turned the ball over 12 times. Ginobili had 20 points and made 5 of 7 3-pointers before the break to keep the Spurs close.
Oklahoma City extended its lead to 83-76 at the end of the third quarter. A runner by Durant, then a 3-pointer by Caron Butler pushed the Thunder lead to 90-76 with just over 10 minutes to play.
"Hopefully we realize that if we're not intense, not very sharp and don't hustle like crazy, we're not going to win here," Ginobili said. "They showed us reality. Hopefully, we react in game four and play a much better game."
NOTES: Thunder C Kendrick Perkins picked up his third foul eight minutes into the game. He played just 13 minutes and finished with four points and three rebounds. Backup center Steven Adams, a rookie, had seven points and nine rebounds. ... Thunder G Derek Fisher took a hit and was bleeding from the top of his head in the first quarter. He got six stitches. ... The Thunder shot 63 percent from the field in the first quarter, but trailed 29-28 at the end of the period. ... Ginobili scored just three points in the second half.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.