Things were not quite supposed to play out this way. The San Antonio Spurs were not supposed to be one loss away from elimination in the Western Conference semifinals.
San Antonio won a remarkable 67 games during the regular season, and their excellence was overshadowed only because Golden State effervescently compiled a league-record 73 wins. In any case, these were the two best teams, destined to fight for the conference crown.
Yet that foreordained matchup is in peril now, because San Antonio finds itself fighting for its playoff life, trailing the best-of-seven conference semifinal series 3-2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The meeting between the Spurs and Thunder (55 wins this season) was presented as this: A well-drilled veteran team with a resplendent offense and the league's best defense meeting a superstar pair, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who lacked very much support.
Yet the Thunder duo has gained the upper hand, carrying their team within a win of the conference finals. For neutral fans, the series has been a blessing. It has been a showcase of high-intensity, high-skill basketball. The Spurs and their fans, however, have been unnerved.
Kawhi Leonard was asked whether he found it surprising to be one game away from elimination. "Definitely," he said. "Your goal is to play till June. But it's not over yet, so I'm not thinking about that."
The Spurs lost one game at home in the entirety of the regular season. They have lost two at home in this series alone after falling in Game 5 on Tuesday night. Whatever happens next, they have been made to look mortal. Embodying the Spurs' unsteady state has been Tim Duncan, the longtime franchise cornerstone, who in this series has suddenly been recast as a feeble figure.
Duncan played over 28 minutes, but he made just one of six shots. He dunked in the first half, sparking raucous cheers from the crowd, which seemed intent on sending him positive vibes. He blocked Westbrook at the rim with just under five minutes to go and received more booming applause from the crowd moments later as he took a seat on the bench.
The Spurs have not quite looked like themselves. The Spurs had 39 assists as a team in Game 1. They had 19 assists in Games 2 and 3. After notching just 12 in their loss in Game 4, they had 19 again on Tuesday. After Game 5, the Spurs were ruing their inability to rebound. The Thunder beat them in that category, 54 to 36.
"That's hurt us through the entire series," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the rebounding battle.
The Spurs have struggled of late to find good shots. LaMarcus Aldridge has symbolized the downturn. He made 33 of his 44 field-goal attempts through the first two games, scoring 79 points combined while confounding the Thunder with his one-on-one moves. In Games 3, 4 and 5, though, he faded, making just 22 of his 60 shots, totaling 64 points.
"We all have to put pressure on ourselves," Aldridge said. "We have to go out there and play like it's our lives on the line."
On top of all of that, Oklahoma City has looked poised. Durant played majestically, particularly in Game 4, when he put on a scoring exhibition. Westbrook has been impossible to corral. Even when he has not shot well, his constant motion to the basket has punctured the Spurs' defensive shape. His rebounding was cited by several Spurs after the game.
Yet amid all this, Popovich was defiant when asked how much credit Thunder coach Billy Donovan deserved after pushing the Spurs to the brink of elimination.
"I didn't know," Popovich said, "the series was over yet."
— New York Times