OKLAHOMA CITY — It was just about the strangest ending possible: A visiting player who had hit a game-winning shot not even five minutes earlier walking off the floor to cheers.
“Good game, Serge!” one Oklahoma City Thunder fan screamed at Serge Ibaka as he walked off the court.
Another fan joined.
“Nice shot!” she yelled.
There were more. It was one final sign that the Thunder’s 119-117 loss to the Orlando Magic came with a twist.
“I’m sure he was excited,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Serge has been in the league a long time and has a lot of pride.”
The Thunder traded Ibaka to the Magic over the summer after he spent his first seven seasons in Oklahoma City. He made sure to remind fans what they were missing upon his return.
With the game tied at 117 and only seconds remaining, Magic point guard Elfrid Payton found him on the right side. Ibaka went two dribbles to the baseline, got Steven Adams in the air with a pump fake and swished a fadeaway eight-footer with 0.4 seconds remaining.
The eventual game-winning bucket was good for points 30 and 31 on the night, slipping Ibaka four past his previous career high.
“He had a special performance, a night I’m sure he’ll remember for the rest of his career,” Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “It was good to see him come back and not only play well against his old mates, but to be able to beat them and hit the game-winner.”
Ibaka’s performance wasn’t just predicated on scoring, though. He swatted four shots. At one point, he may have jumped into a time machine while leaping to block Adams.
Ibaka’s former frountcourt mate was trying to slam on him.
So, he tried again.
“It really got me going,” Ibaka said. “I know Steve is big guy out there.”
It was an odd environment in some ways. It was a game in which 40 percent of the visiting starters got cheered. Former Thunder wing Jeff Green injected some positivity during starting lineup announcements before the crowd left its seats and raucously thanked Ibaka for his seven years in Oklahoma City with a standing ovation when the power forward's name came over the PA.
"It feels good," he said. “It shows that people still love me, and I respect that and appreciate that a lot.”
Things didn’t even start out normally. A man who had been in Chesapeake Energy Arena hundreds of times before didn’t know where he was going when he entered the building.
“It’s my first time being here,” he said of the visitors’ locker room. “I never be here before. I was walking here, I didn’t know which one was the door, and they had to show me. Feels kinda weird.”
The Thunder had troubles other than Ibaka on Sunday. They navigated the floor early similarly to how Ibaka did the Chesapeake corridors.
Ibaka, alone, was tied with the Thunder at the end of the first, 13-13. Oklahoma City got down 38-17 in the second period and spent two quarters climbing its way back into the game. Once it did, actually taking the lead in the fourth, a Magic squad that had been one of the league's worst from 3-point land started splashing triples with unlikely candidates.
Russell Westbrook did everything he could to bring his team within striking distance, going for 41 points, 16 rebounds, and 12 assists in his third triple-double this season, the 40th of his career. But it wasn’t enough.
Sunday night ended just as it started: With Serge Ibaka.
“I’m just really happy for him, to see him have this performance,” Vogel said. “He’s a big-time player. That’s why we went out and got him.”