History will remember the Spurs dominance, their longevity of success, their attention to detail, their stars taking less money, their brilliant coach, their championships. But a function of history is that it remembers failure too, it idolizes it. And so it was that two years ago in the Western Conference Finals the San Antonio Spurs beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first two games of the series. Game one was close and the Spurs pulled it out. Game two the Spurs won by nine. The next four games the Thunder had dominant performances. In game 5 Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 50 points and 17 assists. In the closeout game Durant and Westbrook combined for 59 points and 22 rebounds.
This year the Spurs won the first two games of the series, one in such humiliating fashion it was hard to conceive of a Thunder recovery. But often a team that loses by 30+ is the same team that is re-energized. Add to that the emotional ecstasy of seeing a teammate return, then you have what happened to the Spurs in game 3. It is the game 4 loss that brings the conversation back to 2012. The Spurs were prepared for Serge Ibaka’s activity and athleticism. They were prepared for Westbrook’s hunger and explosion. They were prepared for Durant’s efficiency. And yet they looked like they had never spent one minute dissecting film. They looked lost. Which was how they looked in 2012 when Westbrook’s speed and ruthlessness destroyed them.
Tonight is the biggest game of the year for the Spurs. This entire season has been about redemption. They choked away the NBA Finals. They did what the Spurs never, ever do. They let the details beat them. They lost the execution game. If this season has had a theme then it has been wound recovery, patch that sorrow with tape and take back what was theirs in the first place. Except winning a title will never erase the pain; all pain exists separate from its inflictor, living in its own emotional country whenever it is revisited by analysts who will say: remember when the Spurs had the NBA championship and Parker and Leonard went to rebound which left Ray Allen open. Remember in Game 7 when Tim Duncan missed an uncontested layup in the last minute.
The Spurs lost every game this year in which Serge Ibaka suited up for the Thunder. It is easy to see why. As a team you want to take away what the best player on the other team does well. What the Spurs do well is Tony Parker driving into the lane. Ibaka changes any thought about finishing at the rim. He discourages activity. Parker has hardly looked like himself. Westbrook jamming his game down Parker’s throat has made him passive. Tony Parker has to return tonight for the Spurs to win. He has to match Westbrook’s energy. He has to be the Spurs best player. Or he will find himself in the same position he found himself last year. And in 2012. So so close. But so faraway.