SAN ANTONIO – Gregg Popovich wanted some “nasty.”
The San Antonio Spurs obliged, and they’ve now tied NBA history.
Not to mention leaving Oklahoma City 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 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, which appeared to be on the way to kicking an underdog perception.
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 title.
Game 2 is Tuesday night in San Antonio.
The Spurs matched the fourth-longest streak in NBA history.
Tim Duncan had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Tony Parker shook off a dismal start to score 18 points.
But it was Ginobili who steered the Spurs to strike first in the highly anticipated matchup of the West’s top two teams.
“They got us on our heels. We were not aggressive,” Ginobili said. “And in the second half, we did have it.”
Oklahoma City’s own Big Three struggled to find shots early before waking up in the second half.
Westbrook’s 6-for-15 shooting was forgotten after he 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 under the opposite basket.
Westbrook seemed 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, which was ousted in the Western Conference finals a year ago.
Oklahoma City was in position for homecourt 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 20-win record in their final season (2007-08) as the Seattle SuperSonics to consecutive Western Conference finals – getting his big break in the NBA as intern in San Antonio.
And the Thunder didn’t even need its own Big Three to keep things close.
Durant, Westbrook and James Harden – responsible for 70 percent of the Thunder’s points in the playoffs – at one point in the second quarter were suffering from 5-for-21 shooting.