Spurs, Thunder meet in Game 5 tiebreaker

Oklahoma City At San Antonio, Game 5, 9:00 p.m. EDT

In the span of three days, the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs as many times as they had in the last three years.

And now the Western Conference finals are suddenly up for grabs.

What once seemed like the continuation of one of the most dominant runs in NBA history has turned into a genuine toss-up of a series after the Thunder stopped San Antonio’s perfect stretch with two convincing victories in half a week.

Game 5 is Monday night in San Antonio. Oklahoma City needs at least one road win to advance, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Sunday there’s no time like the present.

“We have a great opportunity in Game 5,” Brooks said.

Seldom have the Thunder been able to say that when they faced the Spurs.

Since James Harden joined Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2009, the Thunder had been 2-8 against San Antonio heading into this series. Now they return to Texas with a chance to hand the Spurs three straight losses for the first time all season.

“We’ve just got to go down there with the mindset that we’re going to play hard every possession, play together like we’ve been playing these last few games, and we’ll see what happens,” said Durant, who is averaging 29 points this series after scoring 36 in Game 4 on Saturday. “We’ve just got to keep believing, man. We’ll be fine.”

Spurs players didn’t meet with reporters Sunday. Coach Gregg Popovich, back at Spurs headquarters trying to solve his team’s first skid since April 9-11, said their attitude hasn’t changed from when they were winning 20 straight games.

Also not likely to change much are the defensive looks the Spurs threw at the Thunder in a 109-103 loss on Saturday. That’s because, as far as Popovich is concerned, there is little to plan for when three typically unheralded offensive players shoot a combined 22 of 25 for 49 points.

That’s what Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison did in Game 4, giving the Thunder a rare dose of balance on a team that leaned on its Big Three for nearly 70 percent of its scoring before this series. Ibaka was especially unstoppable, going 11 for 11 and finishing just one basket shy of the most perfect-shooting playoff game in NBA history.

“Maybe they’ll do it again, but I don’t think so,” Popovich said. “We’ll play the same defense, and if they don’t shoot as well it won’t be because of our defense. It’ll be because they don’t do as well.”

Then there’s Durant. Popovich called him “arguably the best player on the planet” on Sunday after the three-time NBA scoring champion turned in the most magnificent playoff game of his career, scoring 18 in the fourth quarter in the breakout game the Thunder were waiting for this series.

Among those tasked with the increasingly impossible task of slowing down Durant was Spurs forward Stephen Jackson, who said “it was kind of too late” to stop the 23-year-old superstar by the time he got rolling. As far as Oklahoma City’s big men emerging as new scoring threats, Jackson said most of their looks are ones the Spurs will take their chances on.

Popovich also wouldn’t commit Sunday to using DeJuan Blair more back home after finally taking his longtime starting center off the end of the bench Saturday. Blair, whose mobility and relentlessness has historically given the Thunder fits, played his most meaningful 10 minutes of the playoffs since the opening round against Utah.

Popovich said Blair “did a good job” but his role in Game 5 would depend on how things are unfolding.

It’s not the first time a streaking Spurs team has gone from being toasted to the brink of trouble. In 2004, the Spurs went up 2-0 on the Lakers in the West semis and extended a winning streak to 17 games before dropping the next four.

The Thunder are 7-0 at home in the playoffs and 3-3 on the road. Oklahoma City held first place in the West for nearly the entire season before being overtaken by the Spurs in the final weeks, thereby losing home-court advantage.

Having tied up the series at home, Brooks said Sunday there are no new regrets about the top seed slipping away.

“It’s always nice to have it,” Brooks said. “I said a month and a half ago, I don’t think we blew the No. 1. I think San Antonio, they won just about every game.”

They’re not anymore.

Spurs go for 20 in a row

Oklahoma City At San Antonio, Game 2, 9:00 p.m. EDT

Gregg Popovich’s “I want some nasty!” is fast becoming the catchphrase of the NBA playoffs. It’s eminently quotable, brash and an overnight splash.

In other words, it’s everything the San Antonio Spurs are not.

They’ve also heard far worse in timeouts from the NBA Coach of the Year, who bellowed his now-famous and fuming marching orders that jumpstarted a fourth-quarter rally, extended a history-matching winning streak to 19 and left the Oklahoma City Thunder stunned heading into Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday night.

“You’ve got to watch Pop – he’s good at turning that microphone on and off,” Spurs forward Stephen Jackson said Monday. “You don’t hear some of the stuff he says.”

All the Thunder mostly heard Monday were questions about their costly collapse down the stretch.

Oklahoma City started the fourth quarter leading – a rare feat against the Spurs in the past 47 days, which is how long it’s been since their last loss. Going up 2-0 would put the Spurs among just three others teams in NBA history with winning streaks of 20 games or longer.

It would also break the record for longest winning streak extended in the playoffs, a mark the Spurs now share with the 2001 Lakers.

“We really don’t care,” guard Manu Ginobili said. “We are close – seven games – from accomplishing something way better than a streak. (The streak) is happening, it’s fine. But we always think about next time and how tough it’s going to be.”

It’s the first time the Thunder have trailed in a playoff series since being down 1-0 in the West finals last season. They answered with a Game 2 win in Dallas then had their season quickly spiral to an end with three straight losses.

The easy narrative after Sunday’s loss was how the Spurs – awakened by Popovich growling at them to start playing “nasty” during a timeout that was caught on camera – erased a nine-point deficit through sheer intensity and experience. The Thunder, however, rattled off their own explanations Monday at what went wrong.

Among them was head coach Scott Brooks admitting to making a mistake by keeping forward Serge Ibaka, the runner-up in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year balloting, on the bench in the fourth quarter. That’s when the Spurs scored 39 points and shot 12 of 16, after the Thunder held San Antonio to just 16 points in the third.

Brooks said he’ll beat himself up over not putting his defensive ace back in the game, while explaining how sidelining Ibaka seemed the right idea at the time. After all, Brooks said, keeping Ibaka out and going with a smaller lineup worked in the previous playoff series against the defending champion Mavericks and the Lakers.

“I think every decision you make, if it doesn’t work out, you say, `Why did you do that?”‘ Brooks said. “And I’m with you on that. I wish I would’ve played Serge last night.”

It’s not that the Thunder don’t know how to close out postseason games: Oklahoma City has been 5-1 in games decided by six points or less.

Kevin Durant opened the series with a game befitting a three-time scoring champion, putting up 27 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Yet even the Thunder’s star admitted Monday that “part of me growing up” was still trying to figure out when to take over and when to give the ball to his teammates.

James Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth and said he knows to attack the basket more Tuesday.

But the Thunder were mostly disappointed in their defense.

“They found some rhythm. They were able to attack us through penetration,” said point guard Derek Fisher. “We spent a lot of time trying to talk about doing the job, taking away the penetration of Ginobili and (Tony) Parker. We didn’t do that in the fourth quarter.

“You can’t give up a 30-point quarter in a playoff game and expect to win.”

Brooks said the Thunder were also undone by a “vintage Ginobili” effort that may have been the first in these playoffs. Ginobili was averaging just 11 points in the postseason heading into the series but said Monday that he was due to find his scoring touch if he just kept shooting.

“It helps to have a scoring night, don’t get me wrong,” Ginobili. “But I’m not worried about scoring 26 a game because there’s something more important than me. We’ve got a lot of weapons.”

Hot Spurs favored in Western Conference Finals

Oklahoma City At San Antonio, Game 1, 8:30 p.m. EDT

Maybe they’ll finally get a challenge this time.

The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have simply rolled through this postseason. There’s the 18-game winning streak that has the Spurs flirting with history. Seventeen combined playoff games and just one loss. The Thunder sending home the last two NBA champions, and no other playoff teams besides these two that can boast a series sweep.

What took the Western Conference finals so long to get here Sunday, anyway?

“I think we both deserve it,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said.

Few would dispute that.

It’s a clear-cut matchup of the West’s best teams without any qualifiers: No what-if speculating because of devastating injuries like Derrick Rose’s blown-out knee that sunk top-seeded Chicago and reshuffled predictions in the East, nor were there lucky breaks or Game 7 heartbreakers that will gnaw at San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s dispatched opponents and their fans all summer.

By and large, the Spurs and Thunder have just steamrolled to this point.

The top-seeded Spurs clobbered Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers by an average of 14 points a game. They’re one victory from tying the 2001 Lakers for the longest winning streak kept alive in a postseason and two from becoming just the fourth team in NBA history to win 20 in row.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been in the Western Conference finals. And it’s been a week kind of sitting here stewing and waiting on it,” said Spurs forward Tim Duncan, whose last playoff trip this far in 2008 ended with a loss to the Lakers. “All of that together makes it an exciting series to start.”

Oklahoma City – which finished three games behind the Spurs for first place – didn’t have as many blowouts the first two rounds as San Antonio but drew tougher matchups. The Thunder avenged falling at the brink of the NBA Finals last year with a sweep of defending champion Dallas, then beat the Lakers in five.

Even before the playoffs, it was arguably easy to see this conference finals matchup coming: From the second week of the regular season until April 6, the Thunder held first place in the West.

Then the Spurs leapfrogged them, and never gave it back.

“I know they’re the No. 1 seed – they’re a tough group, they haven’t lost in a couple months,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “But I think we bring another dimension to the table as well and we come out and compete.”

Then the NBA’s scoring champion the last three seasons added, “We’re a group that’s been together for four or five years. They’ve been together for 15 years. Those guys, they know each other inside and out.”

If there’s any broad way to frame this series, it’s that: the up-and-coming Thunder vs. the old-and-still kicking Spurs. The triumvirate of Durant, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden are all 23 or younger. Spurs point guard Tony Parker turned 30 last week, while Manu Ginobili is 34 and Duncan 36.

Yet youth hasn’t been served when these teams have played. The Spurs are 8-2 against the Thunder since 2009, including two wins this season despite Ginobili not playing because of injury. The Spurs were the NBA’s best 3-point shooting team this season at 39.3 percent, but they especially picked apart the Thunder from behind the arc, shooting 52 percent in their three most recent meetings.

Durant this week brushed off the Thunder’s troubles defending San Antonio’s slash-and-kickouts that set up so many of those 3-point looks. He also grew noticeably annoyed by questions about how the Thunder will stop the Spurs – “You’ve got to ask me about how we’re going to come at them,” Durant shot back – and was asked before boarding a plane to San Antonio on Saturday whether they’re leaving as underdogs.

“Everybody’s always been using that, `We’re too young for this and it’s not our time, we’re not ready,”‘ Durant said.

The Thunder say they are.

“Our success is just not overnight. It just doesn’t happen,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “It happens through all of the effort that guys put in. This series is going to be the same thing.”