The Western Conference Finals between the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs hardly qualifies as a love fest. Not a single verse of “Kumbaya” has been sung, nor will.
Mixed in with the high-stakes competitiveness between the conference's two top seeds is a mutual respect the Spurs and Thunder have shared through the series.
There has been nothing to be misconstrued as a hint of disrespect from either side, which is rare in the postseason.
In past playoffs involving OKC, opposing coaches Phil Jackson, George Karl, Rick Carlisle and Mike Brown tried to manipulate how the series should be officiated.
Karl playfully (perhaps not) characterized Prius-driving, surfer-boy Thunder coach Scott Brooks as “cocky.”
Dallas guard Jason Terry unsuccessfully played mind games with the Thunder in this year's first round.
We would prefer not to discuss the residue that surrounded Metta World Peace in this year's second round.
While combatants in this year's Eastern Conference Finals bicker back and forth about officiating, nary a disparaging word had been uttered by either OKC or San Antonio.
When the Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series, they still spoke respectfully of the Thunder — and vice versa.
The Thunder has since won three straight, but OKC players still give mad props to the opponent — and vice versa.
A sampling of what's been said thus far:
— Brooks on Manu Ginobili in Game 5 (34 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals): “Manu had a great game like Manu is capable of having. He made shots (5 for 10 from 3-point range). We gave him a couple easy ones, but he made a ton of tough ones, and that is what great players do, and he's one of the best game-time players.”
- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on why his squad isn't as efficient as it was the first two rounds of the playoffs: “Because they're the Western Conference Finals and they're a hell of a basketball team. I don't know what else to tell you. It's not like we're playing the Sisters of the Poor. These guys are hard to guard, talented, hungry, athletic. … You can't turn it over 21 times for 28 points against a team like that. They're too good.”
- Brooks described Popovich as “one of the best coaches of all sports.”
- Ginobili after Game 5 when asked how momentum in the series had shifted so quickly: “They are a great team. We are a good team, great team, too. It just happens. I mean, the same way we won two, they can win three and now we can win two. We respect them a lot, even when we were 2-0, nobody was thinking that it was going to be easy at all. But, of course, we were optimistic. We needed this game, and they got it, so now we've got to go to Oklahoma City and try to do what they did today. That's it.”
- Popovich when asked if it seemed like Kevin Durant took over Game 4 when he scored 16 straight points for the Thunder: “It didn't seem like that, that was a fact. I was there. I saw it. He was great. We tried to do a couple of different things, but his play was better than anything we did defensively, that's for sure. He finished it off in fine fashion.”
- Brooks on defending Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker: “When you have Parker and Ginobili coming at you, those aren't easy guys to stay in front of for a guard, forward or a big.”
- Popovich on the challenges of playing OKC: “Maybe the hardest team we've ever played against to guard. Unbelievably talented, committed. They're aggressive, they're physical. Obviously, well-coached. It's a team that creates a myriad of problems, and they're consistent. They just keep coming at you. They're in the Western Conference Finals for a reason.”
- Ginobili after a 102-82 loss in Game 3: “We have to give them credit. They just smashed us.”
- Popovich after the Game 3 loss to the Thunder: “I think they played smarter than we did, and I think they played harder than we did.”
- Brooks on San Antonio making shots despite solid defense: “They made some tough shots. They're going to make some tough shots. They made some 3s. (Kawhi) Leonard is a terrific player. Obviously they're very pleased on how he's progressed and improved every month. He's really good. He had another great game for them, but they were making shots.”
- Popovich on Durant: “He's arguably the best player on the planet.”
- Brooks on the Spurs defending Durant: “They're a great team. They're a team that plays great defense. They're not just going to continue to give him looks.”
- Spurs forward Stephen Jackson when the series was tied at 2: “Those kids are playing hard. They want it. I think we've got to get back to being that way.”
- Popovich on defending Durant and Russell Westbrook: “Any team at this point in time wants to play team defense, and we can't guard them one-on-one. There's no way. So team defense is even more important than it was during the regular season. Weakside D and doing your job as a team defender. We can only guard them as a team.”
- Popovich on the Thunder: “They're a hell of a team, so everything is a problem.”
At least 500 people greeted the Thunder at Will Rogers World Airport at roughly 1:30 a.m. Tuesday after the team charter returned from San Antonio following a 108-103 victory in Game 5 at the AT&T Center.
Such gatherings have become commonplace for the Thunder — win or lose — when it returns from a postseason road trip, and the gathering again left Brooks shaking his head in disbelief.