OKLAHOMA CITY — The San Antonio Spurs have seen this nightmare before.
In 2012, the Spurs won the first two games of the Western Conference finals against the Thunder then lost four straight and were bounced out of the playoffs. This season, the Spurs were cruising in the West finals, and they won two blowouts against Oklahoma City before Thunder defensive whiz Serge Ibaka unexpectedly came back from a leftcalf strain. With renewed confidence and energy, Oklahoma City's youngsters rolled past their veteran counterparts in Game 3, and the reminders started coming.
The Thunder dominated Game 4 to tie the series, and now the Spurs again face a most uncomfortable scenario. They host Game 5 on Thursday in danger of falling behind 3-2. If they lose, they'll travel to Oklahoma City on Saturday facing elimination.
Just like in 2012.
"Reminding people about what happened in the past helps in some way, but we have to go out there and execute and do things," Spurs forward Tim Duncan said.
The Thunder also have tried to distance themselves from their rare comeback, though they said it helped them remain hopeful when they were down 0-2.
"We can't think about the past," forward Kevin Durant said. "We have to focus on right now. This team (San Antonio) is well-coached and has a great group of guys. They'll make it tough. We have to worry about getting better and having our focus and energy on every single play."
Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker and the rest of the Spurs must match the intensity of their youthful opponents. Russell Westbrook, just 25, was all over the place in his 40-point, 10-assist, five-steal effort in Game 4.
"It doesn't matter what we do tactically if we don't up that determination, that attitude, that persistent, aggressive, ugly, hard-nosed attitude and I think that was embodied in them in Russell Westbrook," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "He played like it was his last game, and that's the way it's got to be."
Oklahoma City looks like a new team. The Thunder lost the first two games of this year's series by a combined 52 points, and a 112-77 loss in Game 2 left them embarrassed. Now, the Thunder appear to have things figured out. The Thunder played a more physical defensive style in Games 3 and 4 and used their length and athletic ability to disrupt the Spurs' normally precise offense.
"I don't think there's no way we can match their athleticism, so we've got to play smart and take advantage of a few situations, because that athletic part is not going to be matched." Popovich said.
Ibaka has provided a morale boost with his play. In the two games since his return, the 6-foot-10 power forward has averaged 12 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. San Antonio shot at least 50 percent in the first two games, but with Ibaka back in the lineup, the Spurs have shot just below 40 percent the past two games.
"They're up in the passing lanes, they have starters and they have Serge (Ibaka) in there and their big guys back there who are protecting the rim, so they're gambling a little more," Duncan said. "They've turned that gambling into turnovers and took some fast-break points and gave them a big boost in that area."
On offense, Ibaka has created spacing with his shooting range while giving Westbrook and Durant a trusted third option. He also gives Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks options.
"We can use a lot of lineups with Serge out there and play different ways," Durant said. "I'm glad he's healthy, he's back, and we're going to need him to continue to bring that energy and effort every time down the court."
The Spurs had the best record in the NBA this regular season and are tough at home.
"We have to make it happen," Duncan said. "We've played all year to have this home-court advantage. It's a three-game series now, and we get to play two of them at home at least. So we're going to go in there and try to right the ship a little bit."