SAN ANTONIO – Manu Ginobili watched his 3-pointer skip off the back of the rim, and the frustration began to build within him. He'd carried the San Antonio Spurs through the night, twice raising them from the dead, and now the game had finally caromed out of his reach.
A timeout followed, and Ginobili walked over to the scorer's table and slammed his hand hard against the foam padding. Deep down, he knew what this meant. These opportunities don't come along often, and now the Spurs are dangerously close to squandering one of their best. Up 2-0 in the Western Conference finals, riding the wave of a 20-game winning streak, they're now one loss from vacation, the Thunder's thrilling 108-103 victory pushing the Spurs toward the edge of their season.
The Spurs aren't fighting only the Thunder in these West finals. They're fighting the clock. Their championship core doesn't have long together, two seasons at the most. If they go on to lose this series, they'll look back on Monday and wonder: Will they ever get another chance like this again? Healthy and whole, two victories from the NBA Finals?
The Spurs now head to Oklahoma City needing to make a final stand, needing to beat the Thunder in a building where the Thunder have yet to lose in these playoffs, with Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker needing to summon their greatness once more. They've put off their demise through all these battle-torn years, contending season after season. But if this improbable championship chase is going to continue, they'll need to dig deeper still.
"I'm not submitting to nothing," Stephen Jackson said. "We are going to win this game. We have to."
Forever full of defiance, Jackson refuses to relent. The Spurs will need his cocksure attitude, but one bold proclamation can't erase the simple truth hanging over them: The Thunder have been the better team in this series.
Oklahoma City's long, athletic defenders forced the Spurs into 21 more turnovers, once again collapsing San Antonio's beautiful offense under a pile of mistakes and hesitance. The Thunder's confidence has grown throughout the series. Even after the Spurs won the first two games, these young Thunder never bought into the belief they were supposed to bow to the conference's elder statesmen. They're built for the future, but they're also built to win now.
"We never just thought we were supposed to wait our turn," Kevin Durant said. "We always wanted to go and take everything."
The Thunder seized control of this series in Oklahoma City, and that's why an air of desperation seemed to hang over the Spurs for much of Monday. Gregg Popovich pushed Ginobili into the starting lineup for the first time since March, and Ginobili nearly saved the Spurs with his brilliance, delivering 34 points in 38 minutes, four more than he's played in any other game this season.
Popovich has often called this his deepest team ever, and yet the box score hardly showed that. Danny Green, the Spurs' usual starting shooting guard, was benched in deference to Ginobili and played less than four minutes. Gary Neal, the Spurs' sharpshooter, missed each of his six shots. Matt Bonner left the bench for all of 50 seconds. Looking for a spark, Popovich called on DeJuan Blair early in the first half, but never went back to him.
As Popovich looked down his bench, he suddenly had to wonder: Who could he trust with the Spurs' season? His 10-man rotation, which helped buoy the Spurs through their winning streak, was essentially chopped to seven.
Spurs officials worried about this. They drew favorable matchups in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but the cost is now evident: Neither the Utah Jazz nor the wounded Los Angeles Clippers were capable of exposing the Spurs' flaws. The Thunder have forced Popovich to scramble, to search for some combination to counter their relentlessness.
"It's not like we're playing the Sisters of the Poor," Popovich said.
The message from Popovich was clear: If we're going down, we're doing it with our best players on the court. Even then, the Spurs' best hasn't been good enough. Only Jackson matched Ginobili's urgency in the first half. Parker has flat-lined since Game 2; he found his aggression after Popovich ripped the Spurs at halftime for "spotting" the Thunder the game's first 24 minutes, but that was too late.
As much as anyone, the Spurs understand how these series can shift on a Game 5, on a single shot. In 2003, they escaped when Robert Horry's 3-pointer rimmed out for the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2004, the Lakers' Derek Fisher stunned them with his .4 dagger. In 2005, Horry's 3-pointer rescued them against the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. The winner of each Game 5 won the series.
On Monday, it was the Thunder's turn. With the Spurs having climbed within two and the clock under 30 seconds, James Harden raised up over Kawhi Leonard and buried a 3-pointer. Ginobili's answer didn't fall.
"Bottom line, every season we won the championship, we had situations like that," Ginobili said, "and every season we lost it, we had those, too."
That's why Duncan called Monday's finish "heartbreaking," and why it could haunt him and the rest of his teammates. Eventually the opportunities stop arriving. There's an end for everyone, and it's coming for these Spurs. Maybe not this season, maybe not next, but it's nearing. Duncan will play one or two more seasons. The same could be true for Ginobili.
The Spurs will continue to contend, but nothing is guaranteed. They carried the NBA's best record for much of last season as they did this one, then watched Ginobili fracture his elbow in the final game before the playoffs. This summer, the Olympics are waiting for Ginobili and Parker, shortening their recovery time for next season.
More than health, more than the advancing age of their stars, the biggest challenge facing the Spurs in the years ahead is the same one they face now: The Thunder aren't going anywhere. Their top four players are all younger than 24. Salary-cap constraints could eventually break them up, but those tough decisions won't have to be made until after next season, if then.
The Thunder fought off the Spurs on Monday then left them to stew in their frustration. A single loss separating them from the end of their season, the Spurs received their sense of purpose from their coach: "If we can't win on Wednesday," Popovich said, "we're not a championship-caliber team. It's as simple as that."
"I absolutely believe we can win," Duncan said, and his confidence sounded sincere. As he walked out of the locker room and started down the long hallway, Parker called to him. They commiserated for a few moments then disappeared out the exit together.
They head to Oklahoma City now knowing what awaits them. Another raucous crowd, a young, hungry opponent, one more opportunity.
The clock's ticking.
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