It happened in 2014, on the 31st of May, in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals as the Spurs played the Thunder in Oklahoma City. The first five games of the series had all been blowouts. San Antonio took the first two going away, but Serge Ibaka didn't play. OKC answered with a couple of no-doubters after Ibaka's miraculous return had people making jokes about Sam Presti's announcement that he would "be out for the rest of the playoffs."
About this time, many Spurs fans were growing petrified at the prospect of dropping four straight to the Thunder, as had happened in 2012. But Game 5 in San Antonio was a laugher, and the teams headed back north with Oklahoma City's season on the line and the Spurs on the brink of another trip to meet the Heat in the Finals.
That Saturday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena saw a game for the ages.
The Thunder jumped out to a quick seven point lead, and though the Spurs led briefly in the second quarter, OKC got it back up to seven again at the half. When the third period began, hopes were crushed by the sight of Parker holding a warming pad to his aching Achilles as it was announced that he would not return. But Cory Joseph filled in wonderfully, and with the help of one of the best defense-to-offense plays of the year, the Spurs outscored the Thunder by 17 in the third and had all the momentum heading into the fourth quarter.
I won't say much about the fourth except that though the Spurs had the game in hand, they would have given it away -- if not for Manu Ginobili's clutch three pointer -- which would have won it -- if not for Westbrook's clutch free throws that tied the game and sent it to overtime.
And what an overtime. The Spurs were able to stay in it because both Durant and Westbrook had gone cold (they'd combine to go 1-10 in the extra period) likely due to the fatigue of playing almost the entire game while accounting for over 60% of the Thunder's offense.
San Antonio went to Duncan three straight possessions, netting 5 points. Which sets the stage for our play. It was just under a minute left and the Spurs had the ball, leading 108-107. Manu, who had already scored on a layup in overtime, circled around Ibaka, drove the lane and finished with his right hand on the right side of the basket. But Serge blocked the shot off the backboard, Jackson got the rebound, and the Thunder were off to the races. (An interesting tidbit here, check out Tim Duncan and Derek Fisher locked up under the basket while OKC starts their fast break.)
Here's where I was terrified. Reggie Jackson crosses mid-court with Russell Westbrook on his left and Durant on his right while the Spurs only have Leonard and Diaw back to defend. Kawhi Leonard is between Jackson and Westbrook, sprinting ahead of them while facing Reggie. As Jackson approaches the foul line, he sends a bounce pass to Westbrook. Kawhi pivots on his left foot while trying to make a steal with his right hand. But the pass is perfectly placed and there's no chance. Westbrook receives the ball inside the paint, steps with his left, and takes off with his right for what's sure to be a layup.
Except for Kawhi, who left Jackson, tracked the ball to Russell while spinning away from Jackson, planted both feet, jumped while raising his arms as Westbrook zoomed past him, located the ball in Russell's hands, and gently brought his left hand to intersect the path of the ball -- simply removing it from Westbrook's grasp, completing a 360° spin and recovering the ball all in a fraction of a second. Insanity.
...Westbrook -- oh! He's stripped by Leonard. What a play!
Thanks to the power of the animated GIF, I've probably watched the play two or three hundred times and I still catch things I never noticed before. Like how Boris hangs in the air, trying to see what was happening. Or how the slow-motion makes it appear as though Kawhi is caressing the basketball as he blocks/steals it. And how odd is seems that the ball falls to the ground, instead of sticking in that huge mitt that Leonard calls a hand. Or the syncopated one-two-two-one-jump rhythm of his feet as they contact the ground. The way he stays balanced even has his limbs fly about his body.
Watch it again from this view and see what I mean.
It's not just that it was a huge moment that saved the Thunder from going up with less than 45 seconds left. On the road. In overtime. It's everything that Kawhi reacts to in a microscopically small snippet of time. Encounter Jackson. See him pass. Turn to follow the ball. See Westbrook. Jump without fouling. Calculate the trajectory of Russell's leap. Anticipate where he will hold the ball. Reach just so in order to remove the ball without touching anything but the ball.
And then all that remained was corralling the ball and getting back up the court quickly, which forced Jackson to guard Duncan. Which allowed the Spurs to post up Timmy so he could ice the game. Instead of being down by one and knowing the Thunder would get another possession, the Spurs were up by 3 and Oklahoma City wouldn't score again.
So there you have it: my pick for the best defensive play in Spurs history. If you have a different one, please leave it in the comments. If you don't, feel free to chime in with your favorite parts of this play.