Oklahoma City and San Antonio met here before, in the Western Conference finals in 2012, and who knew it would still be the finest moment of the Kevin Durant-era Thunder, two years later?
Surely you figured back then that Durant and OKC would have a championship ring by now, or at least be in a better position to win one today, but once again it appears the only title Durant will take into next season is "Best Player Without Bling."
You can chalk it up to bad luck (injuries), bad timing (LeBron James), a bad decision in hindsight (letting James Harden go) or maybe all of the above, a terrible trifecta that loves to produce misery, in the form of Durant tearfully wondering why nice guys can't finish first.
"I've never wanted anything badder than I want a championship," Durant said. "It just hasn't happened to this point."
The West finals haven't even started yet and Durant is already feeling pinched, because OKC is without rim protector Serge Ibaka, done for the playoffs with a calf injury. As if Durant hasn't done enough heavy lifting, playing spectacularly for a chunk of the regular season without Russell Westbrook, now he'll need to be locked in virtually every game of this series, if only because the Spurs are soaring and OKC is shortchanged.
"It's a setback for us," said coach Scott Brooks, who added: "We have a next-man-up mentality here. We had to overcome some injuries this past season. We have an expectation that our locker room sets for itself, to play on without any excuses. We definitely have enough to win this series."
That's been the life OKC has lived since they beat the Spurs in six games and reached the NBA Finals two years ago. They were loaded then with a young core just beginning to hit their stride and garnished with enough smart veterans to lend stability and depth. They were the Team of the Future that was good enough to win 71 percent of their games in the present. The more you looked at the 2012 Thunder, the more you saw a dynasty in the making and their foot constantly kicking the championship front door with Timberlands, demanding to be let in.
They ran into LeBron on a personal redemption tour and therefore the 2012 title was really Miami's to lose. The next setback came three months later when Thunder owner Clayton Bennett drew the line at the luxury tax and refused to pay Harden, forcing a 50 cents-on-the-dollar trade with Houston. OKC won 60 games without him last season anyway, but then Westbrook's playoffs ended on a freak play that forced him to undergo knee surgery. Then, in OKC's closeout win over the Clippers on May 15, Ibaka reached for his left calf muscle. Team doctors put him on the shelf for the rest of the summer, citing a high rate of re-injury if he decides to test it against the Spurs, or in the Finals if OKC advances.
"We have been in some situations in the past and how we've responded to those has always been the measure of the teams we've had in Oklahoma City," said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. "Our expectation going forward is that we'll respond admirably."
The only constant during this time was Durant, the MVP runner-up for two straight years before winning it this season. Dynamic and durable, Durant has missed only two games and averaged 29 points, more than seven rebounds and almost five assists over the last three seasons. That's why it was odd when his reliability was called into question last month by the hometown newspaper.
The Harden trade was bad then and now. The Thunder are still haunted by it, to a degree, and unless they win a championship they could regret the decision for many years. Although OKC sells out regularly and the team supposedly turns a nice profit, Bennett didn't have to pay Harden top dollar and have four players making eight figures a season. From a bottom-line standpoint, perhaps Bennett had the right idea, although he's already wealthy. Why own a sports team and not give yourself every opportunity to get what plenty of rich guys don't have: A ring? Besides, Bennett could've increased ticket prices and not heard a peep in OKC because the Thunder are the only pro game in town, and the energy-rich city didn't suffer much during the recession.
Also: It's so difficult to find three All-Stars and Olympians. OKC had three players who could score 30 points without much of a sweat. When you have that rare chance to keep them, sometimes you cut your profit margin for the sake of doing something special.
"Getting three guys together like that on the same team might happen once every 15 years," said one league GM. "Some teams can go decades without having three special players. Look at the Bucks, the Hawks. Teams like that would kill for the chance to get three special players, and while those teams are in small markets, they'd pay to keep them together. You have to. That's because, more and more, it'll take three guys to win a championship."
Giving up Harden was bad enough; worse, OKC still hasn't replaced his presence and scoring. Kevin Martin was a one-year rental. Jeremy Lamb came in the Harden trade but can't find the minutes or touches to do any damage, which means Brooks, Durant and Westbrook don't trust him enough to give him playing time and the ball.
At the very least, Harden would've given OKC insurance in case a key player went down, and as fate would have it, that's exactly what happened last spring with Westbrook.
His return from three knee procedures since last summer has been nothing short of remarkable and it says plenty about modern science, his youth, work ethic and pride. Westbrook never changed his game once he healed, and while his tendency to dominate the ball will never be greeted with 100 percent approval, his attack-mode personality makes it all worthwhile.
The Thunder swept the Spurs this season, showing unusual dominance over a 62-win team. They did that with Ibaka's help, though, and now will be without their rim protector against Tim Duncan. Durant can't replace what Ibaka does, and for interior defense and rebounding, OKC must hope Steven Adams can handle the additional load and responsibility, which could be a lot to ask from a rookie, especially against an experienced machine like the Spurs and a coach, Gregg Popovich, who won't pass up a chance to exploit the situation.
"We have had this group together for a while now, and they've been through some ups and downs and this is just another one that hopefully is going to make us better," Presti said the other day.
Well, losing Ibaka might improve OKC's resolve, but it's hard to imagine the Thunder being a better team without someone who brings defensive intimidation and a trusty 15-foot jumper. Maybe Presti was just trying to give his players a pep talk, but there are no secrets in the NBA, and the Spurs know just how valuable Ibaka is to OKC's rebounding and defense.
"Everyone needs to raise his level of awareness," said Nick Collison, who'll see a hike in playing time without Ibaka.
No one's more aware of the state of the franchise than Durant. He lost Harden for good, lost Westbrook last year in the playoffs and for a portion of the season, and is now without Ibaka. Therefore, has he once again lost a shot at a ring?
"It drives you," Durant said. "It only makes you stronger."
He should tell that to fate, because this curse began two years ago with Harden's exit. But when it comes to the franchise, hasn't Seattle suffered the biggest loss of all?