The San Antonio Spurs have been down this road before in the playoffs, and their season suddenly veered into a dead end.
Toward the end of the 2003-04 season, the Spurs had won 17 straight and 19 of 20. The Los Angeles Lakers then posted a 105-81 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Then came another Lakers victory, and another, then the final blow.
San Antonio's mad dash to the finish line crashed and burned with a four-game losing streak to end the season.
Fast forward to this year's Western Conference Finals.
In taking a 2-0 lead in its series against OKC, San Antonio had pushed its winning streak to 20 and had won 31 of its last 33 games.
The Thunder handily won Game 3, just like the Lakers, to snap the Spur's impressive run.
OKC's 109-103 victory in Game 4 at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Saturday night has tied the series at 2 and suddenly put the skids on San Antonio's anticipated waltz to this year's NBA title.
Now the Spurs, who tied Chicago for the NBA's best regular-season record at 50-16, have lost back-to-back games for the first time since April 9 and 11.
With the series now the best-of-3, Game 5 is on Monday at 8 p.m. at the AT&T Center.
“It's, of course, a great challenge,” Spurs sixth man Manu Ginobili said of Game 5. “We are playing against a really talented team. We earned ourselves the possibility of having home-court advantage, and hopefully we'll use it. We played a bad Game 3 (a 102-82 loss). Today was a little better, but it's just part of the past. Both teams took care of business at home. Hopefully, we keep that trend.
“Game 5 is always huge in every series when teams are 2-2. Game 5 most of the time is decisive, so it's going to be a very important one.”
Asked about the importance of Monday's contest, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said: “Every game in the series is important.”
Trailing 81-77 going into the fourth quarter, the Spurs were done in by an 18-point outburst in the final period from three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who converted 7 of 9 from the field and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line.
“I mean, he wasn't second in MVP votes for nothing,” Spurs guard Gary Neal said of Durant, who finished with a game-high 36 points (28 after intermission), plus eight assists and six rebounds. “I mean, he is a great scorer, he is a great talent and tonight in the fourth quarter he was making shots and he was hot.”
Thunder forward Serge Ibaka literally scored a perfect 26 points, going 11 for 11 from the field and 4 for 4 from the line. He also had five rebounds and three blocked shots.
In Games 1 and 2 at San Antonio, Ibaka was a combined 4 for 14 from the field and scored 13 points, so the Spurs essentially dared him to shoot outside jumpers – and he never missed.
“We did everything we could,” Spurs forward Stephen Jackson said of defending Ibaka. “Once a guy like that gets it going, it's hard to stop him. I mean, you get out there and shoot 11 wide-open shots, you'd probably hit them, too. Most of the shots were wide open, so he's supposed to hit those. I mean, we were giving those to him, so we have to deal with that and everything else we have to get better on.”
Center Kendrick Perkins completed the Thunder's three-headed monster with 15 points (7 for 9 from the field) and nine rebounds.
“We have to come in and be more physical,” Spurs reserve forward DeJuan Blair said. “We knew this team would be a tough battle coming in here in this environment. It's crazy out there.”