Anybody else sleep last night? After game 4 there was a lot of talk about the end of things, eras, careers. It all gave game 5 something of an existential feel, like it was a fight for survival motivated not merely by a desire to advance but by a need for validation. The Spurs want to know that a 67 win season and a record-tying 40-1 home record wasn't just the setup of a cruel playoff prank. The Thunder want to know that the 8 years they've invested in Kevin Durant would amount to more than a single Finals appearance and a handful of early playoff exits. Whoever lost would endure much more than the typical offseason of question marks.
For the Spurs, especially, survival in these playoffs is a way to prolong the inevitable pain of watching a legend walk away. Tim Duncan has won over 1,000 games in his career, but the twist to that is something like being buried under your own treasure. Accrue that many victories over a career and eventually they start to stick around, slumping the shoulders and twisting the knees, dragging down even the most determined competitor under their combined weight and impact. Every time Tim has denied himself a donut or pushed away a beer, it extended his career a tiny bit, maybe even by a factor of several games. But now the returns have diminished to a trickle. Twenty years ago, before he became The Big Fundamental, Duncan was known as Merlin. Now he's more like another wizard, Gandalf the Grey, taking his stand against the Balrog. After game 4, you could see him looking at Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge with those eyes of his - as deep and expressive as his face is stoic and unrevealing - and saying "Fly, you fools!"
And fly they did, up and down the floor and all around on Tuesday night, out to a 13 point lead as Danny Green buoyed them with a half-dozen three pointers. Then, like the bat Manu Ginobili once swatted out of the air in the very same building on a long-ago Halloween night, they fell. Once again, there was controversy as the referees swallowed their whistles on a crucial play. But this time, blaming the officials truly amounted to grasping at straws. "Every foul doesn't get called," Pop said after the game. He was referring to Kawhi's attempt to intentionally hack Russell Westbrook with 7-some seconds left and the Spurs down one. But he could also have been referring to Steven Adams' trip of Green a couple of minutes earlier. Danny tripped coming off a screen and fell directly into Kevin Durant. KD's resulting free throws were only his fifth and sixth of the game. What should be more concerning than the whistles OKC was getting is that Leonard, the most distant MVP runner up in the history of the league, shot only two. The waxing and waning of Kawhi's aggressiveness has been as much a consistent thing in this series as the Thunder's rebounding advantage and
Billy Donovan outsmarting the Legendary Poppo with his rotations Pop outsmarting himself with his lineup combinations.
This loss isn't on Leonard, who scored 17 of his 26 points in the first half and missed a three pointer that would have cut the Thunder's unexpected late game lead to one; but unless SA can manage to beat OKC twice in a row for the first time this series, the autopsy will reveal that the Spurs' best player and the best 2-way player in the league didn't quite have enough on defense or offense to mitigate the Thunder's superstars in crunch time. It will further reveal that the LaMarcus Aldridge who went supernova in games 1 and 2 slowly diminished, ultimately putting up Westbrook-style shooting efficiency and getting shown up on the boards by Adams and Enos Kanter. Lost in that narrative will be the missed Tony Parker free throw and mid-range jumper that turned a close game 5 into a five stage process. (Also, the Spurs ended another loss with unused timeouts.)
In a series that was supposed to settle which Western rival wins, well, basically the decade, this might be the most frustrating thing: It's told us so little about the future. I don't know about you, but what I fear most as a Spurs fan - hell, as a human being - is the unknown. Winning game 5 might not have changed anything ultimately; the Spurs still could be sent home in two games or two weeks, Durant still wouldn't be likely to go anywhere else but OKC this summer, and the GOATPUFF would still probably throw off the physical and emotional weight of dragging his 1,000 victories and one bad knee up and down the floor and retire to the V.I., where no sweaty Kiwis or short bald pugilistic men named Joey could ever bother him. But at the very least, winning game 5 would guarantee one more game of Timmy and Manu throwing on the home whites. Now we're left with nothing but the terrible unknown.
I feel like if Pop were here, he'd tell me what he told the reporter who asked him to rate Donovan's work in this series:
"I didn't know the series was over."
It's not over, but unless the Spurs can re-flip the script by doing all the Spursy things they've done during this blessed Era of Duncan, a lot more than a series or a season will fade away.