San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili shoots between Oklahoma City’s James Harden, left, and Thabo Sefolosha during Sunday night’s Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich wanted some “nasty.” The San Antonio Spurs obliged, and they’ve now tied NBA history.
Not to mention left the Oklahoma City Thunder agonizing about what could have been.
Manu Ginobili scored a playoff-high 26 points and the Spurs won their 19th in a row to tie the NBA record for longest winning streak kept alive in the playoffs, beating the Thunder 101-98 in the Western Conference finals opener on Sunday night.
Obeying orders snarled by their coach in a fourth-quarter timeout to play “nasty,” the Spurs erased a nine-point deficit that stunned the Thunder, who had looked on their way to finally kicking the perception that they’re the underdog.
Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 27 points. Russell Westbrook had 17.
“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,” Popovich said. “Meaning you have to drive it, you have to shoot it.”
And when they started doing just that, the Thunder couldn’t keep up.
The 2001 Lakers are the only other team to carry a winning streak this long in the playoffs — and they did so on their way to a championship.
Game 2 is Tuesday night.
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. 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.
“They got us on our heels. We were not aggressive,” Ginobili said. “And in the second half, we did have it.”
On the other end, Oklahoma City’s own Big Three struggled to find its shot early before awakening in the second half. Yet Westbrook still finished just 6 of 15 and took a nasty, face-first spill late in the fourth that had the entire Thunder bench crossing the court to check on their All-Star point guard underneath the opposite basket.
Westbrook appeared to favor his left leg when he got up, but he never left the game.
It was a tantalizingly close near-upset for the young Thunder, who 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 intern in San Antonio.
And the Thunder didn’t even need their own Big Three to keep things close.
Durant, Westbrook and 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. But for all the talk about San Antonio’s superior bench, it was the Thunder’s reserves who picked up the slack.
None more so than Derek 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 left still having to prove it.
Notes: Spurs C DeJuan Blair has given the Thunder fits in his three NBA seasons, including 22 points on them in a March win. But San Antonio’s starting center for practically the entire season didn’t play for the third consecutive playoff game. “The game will tell us what’s appropriate and what’s not,” Popovich said before tipoff. …Just because a Boston-Oklahoma City matchup in still possible in the NBA finals doesn’t mean center Kendrick Perkins is hopeful about facing his old team. “I really don’t care,” Perkins said of the Celtics advancing. …Gov. Rick Perry took in his first Spurs game this year, sitting courtside next to Spurs owner Peter Holt, a major donor to the former Republican presidential candidate.