SAN ANTONIO — The last time the Thunder walked out of San Antonio the team left with a series deficit that at the time seemed insurmountable.
But in the back of everyone’s mind was history. It was the one thing the Thunder and its fans had to cling to when searching for a reason to believe this team could march back to the NBA Finals.
Then Serge Ibaka came back. And then the Thunder won twice in Oklahoma City to tie the Western Conference Finals at two games apiece.
Before we knew it, a repeat of 2012 looked not just possible but likely.
But when the Thunder walked out of AT&T Center on Thursday night, history was no longer on its side.
The Spurs sent the Thunder to the brink of elimination with a thorough 117-89 thumping in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead and end the possibility of losing four straight to the Thunder as they did in the 2012 Western Conference Finals after taking the first two games.
San Antonio led by as many as 33 points and cruised after halftime to put all the pressure on the Thunder, which is now staring at a must-win situation Saturday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
But the Thunder also has been here before, in these playoffs no less.
Oklahoma City rallied from a 3-2 hole against Memphis in the first round and advanced after winning the final two games by 31 points. In that series, the Thunder assembled its best performance in a road Game 6.
This time, the Thunder has the benefit of being back in the friendly confines of its home arena, which, judging by the way this series has played out, should serve the Thunder well.
Not that the Thunder is or ever was banking on that.
“We talked about coming in just worrying about this game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We were not worried about going home in Game 6, just like we’re not worried about coming here for Game 7. We’re focused on Game 6. Tonight, we were focused on Game 5. We have to do a better job than what we did tonight. All of our energy (Friday) is going to be figuring out ways to get better and come back better in Game 6.”
So much has to be better for the Thunder on Saturday, starting with defense.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did what most thought he would and altered his starting lineup. But the switch was one most didn’t anticipate, as he went with seldom-used forward Matt Bonner, a 3-point specialist who was being summoned to space the floor by sucking Thunder forward Serge Ibaka away from the painted area.
Bonner wasn’t nearly as effective as the Spurs had hoped. He missed all four of his shots, including two from 3-point range, and was scoreless. But the Spurs started Boris Diaw for the second half, and the cumulative effect forced the Thunder’s defense into scramble mode as shooters stood stationed all over the floor.