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.
“It's a great crowd,” Brooks said Tuesday afternoon. “It's fun to see them come out and support our guys. Our guys love it. You never get tired of that, as long as they're cheering. It was great to see them.”
Brooks constantly preaches he wants his players not to get too high after a win or too low after a loss.
Given the significant circumstances surrounding Game 6 on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Chesapeake Energy Arena, does Brook truly not want his players to ride the positive emotion of a three-game winning streak and parlay that into a possible conference title and a spot in the NBA Finals?
“Really, it's not something that we just say. We believe in it,” Brooks said. “It's one game, one day, and you have to focus on that. I mean, it's always the first of four in the series. We have (won) three games, we have one more to go. We have a great opportunity. We're on our home floor, but that doesn't guarantee automatic victory. They're not going to give us the game. They're not just going to say we lost three in a row, we're going to give in. We know we have a tough challenge ahead. We know we have a great opportunity, although we just have to play with the same energy, the same force, the same determination that we did the last few games. But it's always been that way with our guys. Our guys really believe in work and they believe in doing it every day.”
MAN ON MANU
Brooks said he anticipated Ginobili would start Game 5 for the Spurs, which he did with resounding results.
There were no massive changes when it was discovered Ginobili would start ahead of Danny Green. Westbrook was to defend Green and simply inherited Ginobili.
“They've changed their lineups before, but it didn't change our thinking, our thinking that we had to guard a very good player like we have to guard whoever we're guarding,” Brooks said. “And we know Ginobili is one of their most competitive winners in this league they've ever seen. At either end of the floor, he really gets after it and makes winning plays constantly. He has a knack for making big shots, he has a knack for making a big play with a pass and he has a knack for stealing the basketball.
“I thought Russell did a good job on him and he still had a lot of points, and they definitely weren't all against Russell.”
So far in the WCF, the Thunder and Spurs are extremely close in several team statistics. However, OKC holds a significant edge in blocked shots (36-20), steals (52-23), free-throw percentage (. 833-. 713) and turnovers (61-83).
“They are very active. They are young, athletic, long, and it's not the first time that happened,” Ginobili said of the Spurs committing 21 turnovers in Game 5 that led to 28 points for the Thunder. “Yeah, it was one of the worst parts of our game. When we give them the ball that easy, they just punish you. They are good, and if you just say, 'Here you go, attack,' you have no chance. So if we couldn't have done that, our chances could have increased. So we've really got to take care of the ball a little bit more. If not, we have no chance (to win the series).”
STUCK IN SECOND
In the last three games (all losses), the Spurs have been outscored 87-57 in the second quarter.
“We have (stunk) in the second quarter,” Popovich said before Game 5. “I don't know what else to tell you. The third game we're ahead at the end of the first quarter, and the (fourth) game we're tied at the end of the first quarter. You know, if you're on the road, you feel good about that in the Western Conference Finals. You have a good start, everything is hunky-dory and then it just left a crack in both of those quarters.
“The whole third quarter you're fighting to get back in it, so we've looked at who is on the court, what we're doing offensively, and mostly we've lost our pace in the second quarter. (We've) gotten to the half-court game. With these guys, that's tough. They're quick. They're long. They're athletic. They are what they are. They're really tough.”
Asked after Game 5 for an update on his team's attitude, Popovich said: “Well, the confidence level stays high. We're one of four teams out of 30. We're here for a reason, and I'll be on them, and I'm very sure they'll come out ready to go. You know, championship teams win on the road, and Oklahoma City just did that. So they've proven they're a championship-caliber team.
“We have to go do that. If we can't win on Wednesday, we're not a championship-caliber team. It's as simple as that. You look at anybody who's won championships, and they've won on the road as the process goes along. It's what you do. And they just did it. So we need to do the same thing to hold serve.”
'THUNDER LIVE' ON FSOK
The "Thunder Live" postgame show will return to Fox Sports Oklahoma for Game 6. The show with studio analyst Stephen Howard and local Thunder announcers aired on Fox Sports Plus for Game 5.
Ginobili on if the Spurs will be able to recover emotionally after their third straight loss: “Do we have another choice? It's not (like) we have a Game 8 or 9 to recover, so it's either win or go home. So we have to. It's our job. Nobody is going to feel sorry about ourselves, we've just got to go compete. We know it's hard to beat them there, but it's what we have to do. We've got to step up and play the best game of the season.”