SAN ANTONIO -- A large snake was found in the visitors' locker room, Rodeo of the Year banners clog the rafters, the Coyote mascot has a gatling gun to shoot free t-shirts from, a man dressed as Jesus sits near the three-point line blessing every possession, the courtside crowd uses each referee's first name while screaming complaints and the upper decks are full of waving flags and bouncing "Ole! Ole! Ole!" chants. This is the AT&T Center, the 2014 playoffs' most horrific house of horrors, a humongous concrete egg in which the Spurs just completed a perfect 7-0 May, setting an NBA record by winning each game by at least 17 points.
The two-time defending champion Heat have yet to lose at home during the postseason, and yet the Spurs' home-court dominance has still been the league's best. San Antonio has welcomed three of the league's 12 best teams by point differential -- Dallas, Portland and Oklahoma City -- to the heart of Texas over the last six weeks and racked up a 9-1 record, stifling three high-powered offenses while picking apart defenses seemingly at will. The average score of those 10 games -- the one loss to Dallas included -- has been Spurs 110, Opponent 94, and that league-best 16-point spread is actually generous to their victims. Staying within striking distance at halftime in this building has been a real chore, and San Antonio hasn't been seriously pushed into the fourth quarter in weeks.
San Antonio's latest shellacking -- a 117-89 victory over Oklahoma City in Game 5 that gave the Spurs a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference finals -- was another beautiful, complete game. This was high-level basketball against a high-caliber opponent, the type of game in which the Spurs, who were trucked by the Thunder just two days ago, look unbeatable. And yet this wasn't even their largest victory at home in the series, and it was the fifth time in their last seven home games that they've won by at least 22 points. The drumbeat of exceptional plays is so steady that it ironically has become unexceptional. The Spurs are in that weird place again, all by themselves at the desert junction of breathtaking and ho-hum. Pay attention, though, because Manu Ginobili is liable to whip a no-look tumbleweed to Tim Duncan through traffic at any moment.
Six or seven hours up Interstate-35 and the Chesapeake Energy Arena court was collapsing in on the Spurs, the shooters were cold, the dribblers were panicking and an unstoppable Russell Westbrook was bursting into the "Best NBA player not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant" conversation. Back in San Antonio, the ball moved effortlessly, Danny Green, Ginobili and Patty Mills were taking turns burying threes again, and Westbrook was slamming a canister of chalk off the sideline table in frustration and bowing his head while spitting out one-word responses during his media session. In Oklahoma, the Thunder have won by an average of 11 points. In San Antonio, the Thunder have been blown out by an average of 27.
"This is the craziest series I've ever been involved in," Duncan said, and he's been involved in a few.
Watch: Westbrook's emphatic dunk vs. Spurs
Up in Oklahoma, there was no answer to Serge Ibaka. Down in Texas, he was practically invisible, posting just six points (on 3-of-10 shooting) and two rebounds. Up north, Duncan struggled to leave his mark on the action and found himself resting during an extended stretch of Game 4 garbage time. Down here, he posted 22 points (on 8-of-13 shooting), 12 rebounds and two blocks, once again looking like the best big man on the court.
"I have no clue, honestly," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, when asked to explain why the two teams have played such different games when the venue switches. "Both [teams] look like they feel pretty comfortable playing at home. So that's why we've opted not to go to OKC [for Game 6]."
You can't blame him for wanting to stay put. When it comes to home games during the playoffs, San Antonio now ranks No. 1 in the league in offensive efficiency, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, defensive rebounds, opponent points in the paint, and opponent fast-break points, among other categories. They rank a measly second in defensive efficiency and assist-to-turnover ratio, among others.
Popovich made some tweaks, starting Matt Bonner in the first half and Boris Diaw in the second half in place of his usual starter Tiago Splitter, in an effort to cut into Ibaka's interior effectiveness by adding a shooting presence. The 2014 Coach of the Year also used Kawhi Leonard on Westbrook for much of the game, hoping that the best athlete in his starting five could find some success in slowing down the league's most explosive point guard. Both moves paid off just fine, and certainly neither backfired, even though Bonner didn't score or grab a rebound in 17 minutes and Westbrook still finished with 21 points, seven assists, four rebounds and three steals.
But, as Thunder coach Scott Brooks noted, those adjustments didn't dictate the result. The totality of San Antonio's collective play did.
"Their adjustment [was] they played a much better game," Brooks said. "That is a good team that scores in bunches and they close out quarters, and they get you running after the ball. You have to be able to contain that basketball. ... We gave them everything they wanted. They got the dribble drive, they got the three-point line, and they got to the free-throw line."
Ginobili was magical, scoring 19 points (on 7-of-9 shooting) and dishing six assists. He scored five points in a two-for-one situation to close the first half -- following up a patented running lefty layup with a three-pointer -- that pushed San Antonio's lead to double digits entering the break. In the third quarter, he was a man possessed, calling for the ball, screaming at Mills to get into the correct position, taking off from way outside for a dunk attempt that wound up blocked, knifing through the paint, burying a three, and whizzing a pass to Duncan that traveled a few inches away from Steven Adams' head.
As the lead hit 20 points, the sing-song serenading chants started pouring down, the t-shirt machine gun was ominously rolled out and the Thunder bench simultaneously got the glassy-eyed glaze that tends to accompany the realization that their hole is too deep for any amount of digging to matter.
Oklahoma City took some solace from the fact that it will be home for Game 6 on Saturday, but there is no longer any escaping the task that stands before it now that its season is once again on the brink. Holding serve would only guarantee the Thunder a daunting Game 7, a fourth chance to keep things competitive at the AT&T Center.
"If we want to get to where we want to go, we've got to win in San Antonio," Durant said, a line that probably belongs in the "easier said than done" Hall of Fame.