OKLAHOMA CITY – Gregg Popovich implored his San Antonio Spurs to get nasty to take control of the Western Conference finals.
The Oklahoma City Thunder may just have to get ugly if they hope to make it a series.
The Thunder have struggled to corral a San Antonio offense that is clicking on all cylinders during a 20-game winning streak, the longest any NBA team has been able to maintain into the playoffs.
Oklahoma City is in an 0-2 hole as the series shifts to the Chesapeake Energy Arena for Game 3 on Thursday night. Maybe — just maybe — the Thunder found something that works while trying to rally from a 22-point, third-quarter deficit in Game 2.
They toughened up, turned it into a more physical contest and the NBA's best free-throw shooting team had both teams marching to the foul line as the lead shrank to six. The Spurs were able to close it out for a 120-111 victory.
"We're a physical team. We have to play that way," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Wednesday. "If we play free-flowing basketball, we can beat some teams but we're not at our best if we're not being physical on the defensive end.
"Even on offense, we're a physical team. We're aggressive, we set great screens, we set up our screens and we attack the basket, we have dribble penetration and we're looking for extra shooters. That's when we're at our best."
So far, the Spurs have been at their best more than the Thunder, cranking it up for 39 fourth-quarter points in a come-from-behind Game 1 victory and then shooting 63 percent from the field and 64 percent from 3-point range while building their biggest lead in Game 2.
That had Brooks in a rare position, questioning whether his team was playing its hardest and specifically noting that defense on 3-point attempts wasn't good enough.
"We have to play with maximum effort every possession and the entire possession. If you don't do that, you give them so many open looks because they're the best passing team in the game," Brooks said. "They don't hesitate. They make the plays for each other and they make them consistently and they make them quickly and on time. With that being said, you can have great defense and they still make some tough shots."
The Thunder held a team meeting to regroup and try to find a way to become the 15th team in NBA history to rally back from a 0-2 deficit in a seven-game series.
"We're not down on ourselves," said guard Derek Fisher, a veteran of the Los Angeles Lakers' 2004 comeback after losing the first two games to a Spurs team also riding a double-digit win streak.
"We're obviously disappointed. We don't like to lose," he said. "But we still feel good about our ability to follow our game plan, do some of the things we need to do, make some adjustments and give ourselves a chance to win Game 3."
It starts with duplicating the rugged approach that disrupted the Spurs' rhythm in Game 2. It materialized after Brooks had his players foul backup center Tiago Splitter intentionally to send a poor free-throw shooter to the line.
Oklahoma City didn't make up any ground while sending Splitter to the line repeatedly, but the whistles kept sounding afterward and the Thunder showed some fight.
"They started to attack, attack, attack — put your head down and try to draw fouls — and it worked for them in that fourth quarter," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "And defensively they were everywhere. I don't know if we got a little tired or we kind of stopped playing a little, but they were successful in doing what they wanted in the fourth. We just made a couple of tough shots that gave us some fresh air."
Brooks also questioned how much of the comeback to claim credit for, and how much was San Antonio relaxing after building such a commanding lead.
"If we don't go down 20 and we have that spurt, we're in the lead," Thunder guard James Harden said. "So, we just can't allow a lack of focus." He said there were too many "mini-spurts" where Oklahoma City's lapses let the lead keep ballooning out of control.
No matter what style they try to play, the Thunder already know they can't get by with that lack of mental discipline.
"You can talk about Xs and Os and adjustments and rotations and all those things but at the end of the day, sometimes you just have to want it," Fisher said. "How you define that, how you lay that out as a game plan, I don't know. But when you want it bad enough, you figure it out.
"We have to want it bad enough come tomorrow night in order to figure it out."