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.
“This is the way we’ve been playing all season long and how we need to play to win,” said Spurs forward Tim Duncan. “We shared the ball real well. We moved the ball real well. We moved our bodies. We took something away from them, and we made them react. And on top of that, you have a night where guys shoot the ball as well as they did and it turns into the score that it did.”
The Thunder actually got off to a solid start and appeared ready to make this contest the first competitive one in the series. OKC led 26-19 after a monster driving dunk by Westbrook with 2:42 left in the first period. But just as fast as the Thunder built that early cushion, it lost it because of a few defensive lapses that allowed San Antonio to close the quarter on a 13-6 run.
“The first quarter was fool’s gold. We gave them 32 points,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We were feeling good. I thought the last two minutes we relaxed and they hit a couple of 3s. It’s about playing every possession, and we didn’t have that mentality tonight. And we had that for 96 minutes the last two games. If we don’t get that back, it’s going to be a hard game to stop.”
Brooks went on to talk about how his team can’t survive a shootout against these Spurs. We’ve seen plenty of evidence throughout the season that suggests Oklahoma City is more than capable, but on this night, no way.
That’s because Westbrook and Kevin Durant didn’t have enough help. Despite replicating their all-around excellent play from Game 4, they didn’t receive nearly enough contributions from their supporting cast to keep pace with a Spurs team that had everyone sizzling.
Six Spurs scored in double digits, and San Antonio’s bench erupted for 55 points, 40 of which came in the first three quarters.
Duncan led the way with a team-high 22 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. He made eight of 13 shots in just 30 minutes.
When the Spurs took a 25-point lead with just under nine minutes remaining, Brooks pulled Durant and Westbrook for good. They exited having scored 46 of the Thunder’s 76 points at that point.
“It’s been an up-and-down series, but we’ve got to find a way to come with it in Game 6,” Durant said. “If we want to get to where we want to get to, we’ve got to win in San Antonio. But we’ve got to get the next game.”