SAN ANTONIO — 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 its excellence this season was overshadowed only because the Golden State Warriors 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, three games to two, to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The meeting between the Spurs and the 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 have 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 late Tuesday night whether he found it surprising to be one game away from elimination. “Definitely,” Leonard said. “Your goal is to play till June. But it’s not over yet, so I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about winning.”
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.
Duncan, who could decide to retire this summer, did not speak to the news media after the loss. It may end up being his last game at AT&T Center.