No one said it would be easy but who would have predicted it would get “nasty.”
Trailing in the fourth quarter, Gregg Popovich snarled an order in the huddle that the NBA Coach of the Year punctuated with a sharp and angry sweep of his hand.
"I want some nasty!"
But truthfully, Popovich was already getting what he really wanted: the San Antonio Spurs finally in a game they might actually lose.
Popovich's caught-on-camera "nasty" command in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals is likely coming soon to T-shirts, Internet memes and the lexicon of the NBA playoffs for the foreseeable future. But after beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 101-98 on Sunday night for their 19th win in a row — tying the NBA record for longest winning streak kept alive in the playoffs — Popovich wasn't flustered by the near-loss.
He was almost grateful for it.
"We wanted it about 15 games ago," Popovich said. "At least I did."
Manu Ginobili scored 26 points as the Spurs escaped a tantalizing near-upset for the young Thunder, who came closer than anyone to beating the Spurs for the first time in 46 days. But a nine-point lead didn't last after the famously mercurial 63-year-old Popovich huddled his lagging team together in the fourth and told them to "get nasty."
"I said that?" Popovich said afterward.
A nationally television audience heard it.
"The heat of the game, stuff comes up," Popovich said. "So I talked to them about they've got to get a little bit uglier, get a little more nasty, play with more fiber and take it to these guys. Meaning you have to drive it, you have to shoot it."
And when they did, the Thunder couldn't keep up.
Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 27 points. Russell Westbrook had 17, and insisted he was OK after taking a spill that was nasty in its own right — face first, bracing his fall with his hands and sitting under the basket for more than a minute while the entire Thunder bench walked across the court to check on their All-Star point guard.
"I shot good shots, made good passes," Durant said. "Unfortunately, we lost."
After being held to just 16 third-quarter points, San Antonio scored 39 in the fourth. Westbrook chalked it up to a defensive breakdown that "got out of hand" but it still left the Thunder in search of the road win they'll need to in this series to reach the NBA finals for the first time since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2009.
Game 2 is Tuesday night.
"How it happened is irrelevant," Thunder guard Derrick Fisher said of letting a lead slip away. "Whether we lose by 20 or lose by one, we lost."
That's something the Spurs haven't been able to say since April 11. They joined the 2001 Lakers as the only other team to carry a winning streak this long in the playoffs — and that Los Angeles team did so on its way to a championship.
The Spurs matched the fourth-longest streak in NBA history, and with one more will become just the fourth team to surpass 20. Tim Duncan had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Tony Parker shook off a dismal start to finish with 18 points.
And of getting "nasty"?
"Pop's always trying to motivate us," Parker said.
But it was Ginobili who steered the Spurs to strike first in a highly anticipated matchup of the West's top two teams for practically the entire regular season. In his first game against the Thunder this year — he was sidelined by injury in the three regular-season meetings — Ginobili put up a playoff high after sputtering through the first two series.
"It just happened," Ginobili said. "I don't know how exactly because I haven't scored like this all season long, but it happened and I am very happy about it."
On the other end, Oklahoma City's own Big Three struggled to find its shot early before awakening in the second half. Durant, Westbrook and James Harden at one point through the second quarter were 5 of 21 — a typically ominous stat line for a trio that had been responsible for nearly 70 percent of Oklahoma City's points through the playoffs so far.
The Thunder were ousted in the Western Conference finals a year ago and were in position for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs until being overtaken by the Spurs in the final month of the season. But it was a fittingly close opener for two franchises with so many similarities.
That includes Thunder general manager Sam Presti — the architect of the Thunder's rapid turnaround from a 23-win season to consecutive Western Conference finals in just four years — getting his big break in the NBA as an intern in San Antonio.
And the Thunder didn't even need their own Big Three to keep things close.
They leaned on none more so than Fisher, whose famous game-winner for the Lakers on this same court in the 2004 playoffs has made "0.4 seconds" a phrase that needs no further explanation to the Spurs. Eight years later, and the oldest player in this series at 37, Fisher already met his playoff average at halftime and finished with 13 points.
Gary Neal added 12 points and was the only other Spurs player in double figures.
Harden lost in the first round of his matchup with Ginobili, who's also a lefty and a former Sixth Man of the Year winner. Harden finished with 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting but started by missing nine of his first dozen shots.
Tipping off another conference finals couldn't happen soon enough for Oklahoma City. With nothing to do but prepare for the Spurs all week — and be asked about the Spurs — the Thunder grew weary of questions about being perceived underdogs. About not having the same championship pedigree. About how they'll possibly stop a team rolling through one of the 10 longest winning streaks in NBA history.
So repetitive were the questions that Durant, visibly annoyed, suggested earlier this week that someone instead ask how the Thunder are going "to come at" the Spurs. That didn't stop Oklahoma City from facing more of the same at shootaround Sunday morning, when Thunder coach Scott Brooks tried quashing again the idea his team was somehow intimidated.
"They're not going to be in awe. They're going to have respect for them," Brooks said. "We know we can beat them."
They've still got to prove it.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.