SAN ANTONIO – Even after victories, Gregg Popovich has a low tolerance for questions he considers pointless or silly.
The query could be an innocent one, but something simplistic like “Can you talk about your 20-game winning streak” might result in Popovich answering, “No.”
So when he was asked Tuesday night how many times had his offenses – which include those of four championship teams – been better than the current one, the possibility of a curt answer such as “How should I know?” hung in the air.
But Pop didn’t go there. Maybe it was the scoreboard, which read Spurs 120, Thunder 111.
Maybe it was the state of the Western Conference finals, which the Spurs lead 2-0.
Maybe it was the 20-game winning streak, which is the fourth longest in the history of the National Basketball Association.
Or maybe it was a simple appreciation of the players who make up that offense – not only star players Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but also the role players who have been such a vital part of the Spurs’ success.
Whatever the reason, Popovich provided a thoughtful answer.
“Well, we’ve had good ball movement with other teams that we’ve had here,” he said. “But I think that the combination of penetrate and pitch and post-up with Timmy is probably the best that we’ve had. Other teams were more half-court. This team has more pace to it than what we’ve had in the past.”
That pace has been too much for the young Thunder to handle. Oklahoma City has the finest collection of young talent in the league – four players 23 or younger who should already be considered stars. The future is neon bright.
But the Thunder is still a team that has yet to win a playoff series unless they had the home court advantage.
The Thunder is a team that has never defeated a team that had higher than a No. 4 seed.
The Thunder has wonderful potential, but potential is no match for this current Spurs team. Oklahoma City discovered that again Tuesday when the Spurs again asserted their superiority.
In Game 1, they did it in the fourth quarter, scoring 39 points and negating an excellent effort by the Thunder.
In Game 2, the Spurs rode a strong performance by Tony Parker to an 11-point halftime lead, then utilized their role players and depth to build it to 22 points late in the third quarter.
The Thunder mounted an impressive comeback, but close is the best they could do and now they are faced with an imposing task – to win the series, they have to win four of the next five games against a team that has won 20 straight. Or, as Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks calls the Spurs – “The best team in basketball.”
“We played hard,” Brooks said of the two games. “Unfortunately we came away from nothing. They did a good job holding serve. It’s our job to go home and win Game 3. That’s all we’re focused on.”
Although focus will obviously be important, the Thunder also have to do something about the superior San Antonio offense and defense. Statistically, the two teams were close in both categories in the regular season – the Spurs were No. 2 in offense and No. 15 in defense and the Thunder were No. 3 in offense and No. 14 in defense.
But even though the Thunder scored eight points more than their season average Tuesday, they gave up 120 points, which is the most any team has allowed in a playoff game this year.
Parker led the attack from the beginning. He led the Spurs with 10 points in the first quarter and seven in the second. He made 8-of-11 field goal attempts in the first half, 8-of-10 in the second and led San Antonio with 34 points.
Ginobili had another strong game with 20 points while Duncan struggled from the field and had 11 points on 2-of-11 shooting. But he had 12 rebounds and rookie Kawhi Leonard, who still is only 20 years old, had 18 points and 10 rebounds. That essentially doubles the 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds he was averaging in the playoffs.
Leonard was an integral part of the Spurs burst that led to the big lead. San Antonio led by 11 points at the half, then opened the third period aggressively. In the first seven minutes of the period, the Spurs hit five 3-point shots, which included two from Leonard and one each from Danny Green and Boris Diaw. When Diaw scored on a layup with 4:47 left in the third period, the Spurs had a lead of 80-58.
The Thunder battled back and managed to get as close as six points in the final quarter. But the Spurs got eight points from Ginobili in the last four minutes and scored on 10 of their final 12 possessions to get the victory.
Oklahoma City’s big three – Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – did their part. Durant had 31 points, Harden had 30 and Westbrook had 27.
But the Thunder shot only 42 percent from the field. Combine that with getting behind by 22 points and allowing 120 in the game, and it becomes very difficult to beat any team, but especially one that has won 20 consecutive games.
“We cannot put ourselves in those situations,” Harden said of the large deficit. “We have seen what we can do when we play as a team. We fought hard, but it was too much of a deficit to come back late in the game.”
The Thunder built a nine-point lead in Game 1 and still lost. In Game 2, they allowed a big deficit and lost again. So far, they have not been able to win whether they’ve been ahead or behind. Game 3 is on Thursday, and it’s not too early to say that Oklahoma City is running out of time.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.