Kragthorpe: Game 5 vs. OKC will define Spurs, one more time
Now that the San Antonio Spurs appear vulnerable in the NBA playoffs, everyone will learn a lot about this team.
In Thursday's Game 5 vs. Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, the Spurs face one of those moments that will define a franchise.
With the Thunder having evened the series after two convincing victories in Oklahoma City, the Spurs are coming home to make their once-and-for-all Last Stand.
This time, I mean it.
This stuff is nothing new for the Spurs. How many times have they found themselves in this position, with something to prove? How often have we all thought this was their last chance to win a championship in the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era, only to have them magically reappear?
Yet there's obviously something different about this dilemma for the Spurs, a sense that this truly is their last shot, and Thursday's game will determine everything about their status in the West. The most intriguing franchise of this century in the NBA maybe any pro sport has lost command of this series, and getting it back might be very difficult, even if San Antonio owns the home-court advantage in what becomes a best-of-three series.
The Spurs were dominant in Games 1 and 2, winning by a total of 52 points. Everything was flipped in Oklahoma City, as Serge Ibaka returned to anchor the Thunder's defense and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined for 71 points in Tuesday's Game 4.
Or has nothing changed, really? San Antonio needs only to win Game 5 at home to re-establish itself. This series has lacked any kind of drama in the fourth quarters of the games, but it sure gets interesting now. The Spurs are right where they were in 2012, when they swept the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs and took a 2-0 lead over Oklahoma City in the conference finals, only to lose the next four games.
The Thunder seem much better equipped to compete with Miami in the NBA Finals. That just means if the Spurs reach that stage again, they will have earned it.
They're a fascinating team, just because of how long they've managed to remain at an elite level with Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, complemented by a cast of extras. And their ties to Utah make the Spurs even more interesting to watch around here. This is a team that Dennis Lindsey helped to build, before becoming the Jazz's general manager. Jim Boylen, the former University of Utah coach, is Popovich's No. 1 assistant. Scott Layden, a longtime Jazz coach and executive, took Lindsey's old job.
Layden should have earned his first championship ring last June after 30-plus years of NBA employment, but Miami somehow rescued a Game 6 victory and went on to claim the title.
The Spurs have considerable history with the Jazz, who represented their biggest obstacle in the West in the 1990s. Their most recent NBA title came in 2007, when they swept Cleveland after beating the Jazz of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer in the West finals. Going back even further, they were ABA rivals of the Utah Stars in the early '70s, when Tom Nissalke coached them.
The Jazz have staged some memorable games with San Antonio in recent years, although the Spurs won all four meetings in 2013-14, on the way to a remarkable 62-20 record. That achievement gave the Spurs a home-court edge throughout the playoffs, and they need it now.
Game 5 will define the Spurs, telling us everything we need to know about them until Monday, when Game 7 will answer all of the remaining questions, for the moment.