No losses in nearly seven weeks for the San Antonio Spurs? Nine straight home victories? No big deal. When in doubt, the Thunder have a simple philosophy.
Jump high and dunk hard. And, oh yes -- keep shooting.
That youthful, carefree approach worked spectacularly late in the third and early in the fourth quarter when the Thunder took control of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. They built a nine-point lead and seemed to have the Spurs running for cover.
But San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich blistered his team in a timeout before the last period began. He started with a sarcastic, "Are we having fun yet?" He reminded players that the playoffs are not supposed to be easy, that each round is tougher. And then he went into his best imitation of a WWE promoter and said: "I want some nasty."
His players responded. It took them a little more than three minutes to catch and tie the Thunder. Less than six minutes after that, they had a 10-point lead. After scoring only 16 points in the third quarter, the Spurs had 39 in the fourth.
What could have been a series-changing victory for the Thunder instead became a message-sending loss as San Antonio pulled out a 101-98 win. Game 2 will be played here Tuesday night.
The Spurs continued a winning streak that began on April 12 and has now reached 19 games, including a 9-0 mark in the playoffs. But for the longest time, they hardly looked unbeatable.
And the Thunder looked anything but intimidated. Even when Manu Ginobili sailed in a fall-away three-pointer as time ran out in the first quarter to give the Spurs a six-point lead, the Thunder brushed it off. They quickly tied the game early in the second quarter, battled evenly and went into halftime with a one-point lead.
The visitors were fearless. In the first quarter, Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Durant tried to dunk on or over the 36-year-old Tim Duncan, but the 15-year veteran got in the way just enough to make each man miss. No big deal. In the third quarter, Russell Westbrook went strong at Boris Diaw, but connected only with the side of the rim and the ball shot out to midcourt. Later, Westbrook tried to sky over Duncan and Gary Neal at the basket, but instead drew a charging foul.
For Ginobili, the Spurs' premium playground player, it was a reminder of earlier years when he did the same sort of thing -- 7-footer or not. Ginobili never met a spectacular play he wouldn't try. So he can relate to Durant, Westbrook and James Harden.
"That's what they do," Ginobili said. "They are so athletic, so strong and so fast, those three guys can dunk on anybody. So we know that they are coming. But it's good that TD [Duncan] didn't get dunked on."
San Antonio was not sharp in the first half, which in part could be attributed to the Thunder's defense. The Spurs may not have been nasty enough for Popovich, but they were plenty sloppy, committing 13 turnovers and showing signs of being less poised than their younger opponents.
But they cleaned up nicely in the second half and committed only three turnovers. They also focused defensive attention on Durant, showing him different looks with rookie Kawhi Leonard and veteran Stephen Jackson.
Jackson, who hit a key fourth-quarter three-pointer for his only basket of the game, defended Durant for most of the final period and did not allow the three-time scoring champion to make a field goal. Even worse for Durant, he managed only two shot attempts. He did have six points in the quarter, but all from the free-throw line.
"They were getting into him," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "They were making him get off our spots. Offensively, we have sets that we have to run. We have to run with good energy and we have to set screens and execute. They did a good job of knocking us off of our spots."
Ginobili led the Spurs with 26 points while Tony Parker finished with 18 and Duncan had 16. The Spurs again demonstrated their depth with Neal scoring 12 points off the bench. That made up for starter Danny Green, who missed all six of his shots, including five from three-point range.
Durant had 27 points for the Thunder with Harden getting 19 and Westbrook 17. But those three were only 22-of-57 from the field, and Oklahoma City needs more efficient scoring to be successful. The Thunder did get 13 points from veteran point guard Derek Fisher, who connected on his first six shots, but they made only 42.2 percent from the field.
While four key players for the Thunder are 23 or younger, they have obviously benefitted from deep playoff runs the last two years. They play loosely and confidently. But the issue that arose Sunday was whether they can play with focus and, when needed, restraint. When the Spurs were at their best in Game 1, that's how they played -- well, like that with a nice dose of nastiness thrown in for the head coach.